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Column: Fund Ukraine!

The recent congressional deal to fund the government through Nov. 17 forestalls a shutdown — in the United States. But it’s a bad deal all the same because it undermines support for Ukraine and boosts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hopes for war fatigue among Ukraine’s Western allies.

The Sept. 30 deal finances most government operations for the next seven weeks but excludes $24 billion President Biden requested to continue aiding Ukraine in its war against Russian invaders. Some Republicans oppose further aid to Ukraine, and stripping that from the spending package was a concession they demanded — and got — in exchange for enough votes to pass the deal.

It doesn’t mean the United States is abandoning Ukraine. There is still majority support, including nearly all Democrats and many Republicans, for further Ukraine aid in Congress and there are ways to approve that aid through separate funding measures. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy says he supports Ukraine aid but wants it to be combined with tough new policies on immigration and border security.

Since the US aid will likely materialize, the problem isn’t an interruption of US weaponry for Ukrainian forces. The problem is that US support for Ukraine has now been politicized, like just about everything else in the country. That’s exactly what Putin wants and it probably means lies and disinformation about Ukraine will besiege voters as the 2024 election heats up. Putin’s propagandists will probably mount their own disinformation effort as they did in 2016 by trying to discredit Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton.

Biden has said repeatedly that his administration will stand by Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” But that’s a bit wishy-washy. As long as it takes to do what? Biden has never spelled out what a winning outcome looks like and that may be deliberate. Expelling all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory may be impossible, yet it’s impolitic to acknowledge that. Without saying so, Ukraine’s allies do need to leave room for some kind of negotiated settlement that ends the fighting but leaves Russia with territory it doesn’t deserve.

FILE - Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, speaks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a wreath laying ceremony at the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, Sept. 21, 2023, in Washington, as first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, looks on. The Pentagon is warning Congress that it is running low on funding to replace weapons the U.S. has sent to Ukraine and has already been forced to slow down restocking some troops. The warning from the Pentagon comptroller came in a letter sent to congressional leaders and was obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a wreath laying ceremony at the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, Sept. 21, 2023, in Washington, as first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, looks on. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

It’s time, however, for Biden to make a more forceful public case for why it’s good for America — and American taxpayers — to help Ukraine defeat Russia. It shouldn’t be hard. So far the United States has provided $47 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, plus $30 billion in economic and financial aid for a total of about $77 billion. The United States is the biggest donor nation in raw dollars but as a percentage of GDP, it’s only 15th. The United States can afford to keep giving.

US military aid to Ukraine represents about 5% of the total US defense budget. Considering what it buys, that money is extremely well spent. Russia and China are America’s two main geopolitical rivals. Ukraine has severely damaged Russia’s army and it continues to weaken Russia militarily and politically literally every day. Containing Russia is an overt US national security goal, with a good chunk of the defense budget devoted to that cause. Ukraine is helping fulfill that goal without a single American service member involved in the fight.

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Russia would hold the West hostage to its oil and natural gas reserves if it could. Putin has already tried, and largely failed, to push up world oil prices and freeze Europeans during the winter by cutting off gas supplies. A Russian victory in Ukraine would bolster Putin’s bid to be the leader of a new kind of global pariah alliance that tries to bully the rest of world economically. Defeat in Ukraine, or even an open-ended quagmire, will further diminish Putin’s power over world energy markets and consumer budgets.

Western resolve in support of Ukraine also sends the message to China that an invasion of Taiwan would be a disastrous act of self-sabotage. Some Americans may not care whether a democratic Taiwan falls to the Chinese communist party. But they should care about the economic consequences, which at a minimum would be a severe trade shock that would send prices soaring and render many products unavailable. If the United States responded militarily it could slash 5% off US GDP, according to the Rand research organization. That would be double the damage of the Great Recession in 2007-2009. The best way to deter a Chinese move against Taiwan is to relentlessly punish Russia for its territorial grab in Ukraine, with no expiration date.

McCarthy says his top priority is immigration, not Ukraine — as if the United States, which has 15 Cabinet-level agencies and a $6.3 trillion annual budget, can’t do two things at once. Biden could grab that as an opportunity to solve one of his own persistent problems. Voters give Biden poor marks on immigration and it’s not surprising why. The relentless flow of migrants to the southwest border is straining state and city governments nationwide and creating the impression of a nation overrun. Even some Democrats are now calling for new limits on inbound migration.

So why doesn’t Biden accept some of the Republican ideas on immigration as part of a deal to arm Ukraine for another year? While explaining how stalwart American support for Ukraine is, and why, Biden could try to win some points for attacking a migration problem that so far has gotten the better of him. And when the next budget deadline comes in November the only thing anybody should be trying to shut down is Russia’s misbegotten war in Ukraine.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman.

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