Navalny’s Death May Not Hasten Approval Of US Aid For Ukraine – Analysis

By Todd Prince

(RFE/RL) — As reports of Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny’s death in a harsh Arctic prison swept around the world, U.S. President Joe Biden once again called on Congress to pass a long-stalled $60 billion aid package that is crucial to Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion.

For the past four months, a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives has been holding up the aid, mostly money for weapons and other military support, while pressing Democrats and the White House for major immigration reforms and more funding for the U.S. border with Mexico.

Russian authorities said Navalny died after feeling ill and losing consciousness at the remote strict-regime prison north of the Arctic Circle where he was sent in December to serve a 19-year sentence on an extremism conviction that he and his supporters say was Kremlin revenge for his activism.

For many in the West, his death — after more than three years in custody in conditions his associates likened with torture — underscored the threat that President Vladimir Putin and his government pose to his own country and others including Ukraine, where Russia’s full-scale invasion hits the two-year mark on February 24.

“This tragedy reminds us of the stakes of this moment. We have to provide the funding so Ukraine can keep defending itself against Putin’s vicious onslaughts and war crimes,” Biden, who said that “Putin is responsible” for Navalny’s death, told reporters on February 16.

“The failure to support Ukraine at this critical moment will never be forgotten,” Biden said.

But several U.S. analysts and advocates of aid to Ukraine say Navalny’s death is unlikely to have a substantial effect on the fate of the aid package, which was passed by the Senate on February 8 but faces an uncertain future in the House.

“Even though this should be something that moves members of the House to counter Russia by supporting Ukraine, the death of Navalny, unfortunately, won’t be a factor when it comes to voting on the bill or another piece of legislation that would provide financial assistance to Ukraine,” said Daniel Vajdich, president of Yorktown Solutions, a Washington-based firm that lobbies on behalf of Ukraine. 

The House broke for a two-week recess on February 16 without taking up the latest version of the $95 billion bill — which also includes funding for Israel, Taiwan, and humanitarian assistance in Gaza and the West Bank — meaning that any aid legislation could not pass until the beginning of March at the earliest.

In a statement the same day, House Speaker Mike Johnson (Republican-Louisiana) blamed Putin for Navalny’s death and said the United States and its partners must use “every means available to cut off Putin’s ability to fund his unprovoked war in Ukraine.”

But he has suggested that the lower chamber would take its time with any aid legislation, leaving it unclear when he might bring the current bill to a vote — if ever. “The Republican-led House will not be jammed or forced into passing a foreign-aid bill,” Johnson said on February 14.

The United States has been the biggest supplier of military aid to Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, allocating more than $44 billion for weapons and equipment. 

However, the Biden administration has been unable to distribute any additional aid since late December amid Republican opposition to the proposed package. The lack of additional military support and uncertainty over whether it will ever come is reducing Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself, forcing Ukrainian troops to conserve ammunition.

Analysts say Russia has taken advantage of Ukraine’s predicament by launching consistent attacks along the front in the east. Many believe Putin wants a significant battlefield victory ahead of the tightly controlled March 15-17 election that is set to hand him a new six-yar term — and he appears to have gotten it.

Ukraine announced in the early morning hours of February 17 that it was withdrawing its forces from Avdiyivka, a destroyed city it had been fiercely defending since October. The withdrawal represents Russia’s first major victory since May 2023. 

Andrij Dobriansky, director of communications for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, a diaspora umbrella group advocating for aid, says he believes that neither Navalny’s death nor the fall of Avdiyivka will prompt the Republicans holding it up in the House to move on the matter.

Navalny’s death may be out of the headlines by the time House lawmakers return to Washington, he said. “Right now, the people who want aid to go to Ukraine can’t find a good-faith partner from the side that’s blocking the bill,” he added.

Amid twists and turns in Congress that have reflected deep divides between Democrats and Republicans as well as rifts within the Republican Party, the Biden administration’s efforts to secure new aid for Ukraine have been stymied since August.

In October, Biden proposed a $118 billion spending bill that included Ukraine aid as well as funding for the U.S. border and immigration reform. On February 6, Republicans in the Senate killed that bill amid pressure from former President Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the party’s nomination in the November 2024 election.

The current $95 billion package does not include the border and immigration element. With its fate in the balance, analysts say Johnson is under immense pressure from the Republican Party’s right wing, which could attempt to oust him if he brings the bill to the floor in its current form. 

In his statement following reports of Navalny’s death, Johnson indicated a desire to find a compromise aid bill that could satisfy more members of his party. 

“As Congress debates the best path forward to support Ukraine, the United States, and our partners, must be using every means available to cut off Putin’s ability to fund his unprovoked war in Ukraine and aggression against the Baltic states,” he said.

John Herbst, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003-06 and now an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, says there is speculation that Johnson is planning to write his own aid and immigration bill. The two-week recess would potentially give his team time to work on it. 

Johnson may be looking to bring a bill to the floor that substitutes some aid with loans, Yorktown Solutions analyst Vajdich says. Trump said earlier this week that he supported loans to Ukraine. 

Replacing aid with loans might be a largely cosmetic change in the long run, because Russia’s invasion has so devastated Ukraine’s economy that Kyiv might never be able to pay back the loans. Vajdich suggests that could be a face-saving way for Republicans to approve new military support for Ukraine.

“If that’s what makes the bill palatable for Johnson and Republicans to be able to claim a win in the context of Ukraine assistance, so be it,” he said.

  • Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.