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Biden under pressure to step up weapons tracking in Ukraine

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Emboldened by their success in the midterm elections, House Republicans, who will hold a slim majority in the next Congress, have warned the Biden administration to expect far-tougher oversight of the extensive military assistance it has provided Ukraine.

The administration, anticipating such demands as the commitment of military aid under President Biden fast approaches $20 billion, has worked in recent weeks to publicize its efforts to track weapons shipments. Both the State Department and the Pentagon have outlined plans, including more inspections and training for the Ukrainians, meant to prevent U.S. arms from falling into the wrong hands — initiatives that have failed thus far to quell Republican skeptics calling for audits and other accountability measures.

Most in Washington are in agreement that, generally, the push for more oversight is a good thing. But experts caution there are credible limitations to ensuring an airtight account of all weapons given to Ukraine that are likely to leave Biden’s harshest critics unsatisfied.

“There are shortcomings of end-use monitoring in the best of circumstances, and of course Ukraine isn’t in the best of circumstances,” said Elias Yousif, a researcher on the global arms trade with the Stimson Center. “There has to be some willingness to be practical about what we can achieve.”

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To date, the megaphone for demanding change has been controlled primarily by the GOP. Congress “will hold our government accountable for all of the funding for Ukraine,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said this month in announcing a measure to audit the aid program after Biden requested another $37 billion for the government in Kyiv. “There has to be accountability going forward,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), House Republicans’ current leader, told CNN in the interview in which he warned against giving Ukraine a “blank check” to fight off Russia’s invasion.

Yet the reckoning could begin before the Republican takeover. A series of provisions on offer in the House-passed version of this year’s annual defense authorization bill would require a web of overlapping reports from the Pentagon and the inspectors general who police transfers of articles of war, plus the establishment of a task force to design and implement enhanced tracking measures.

And unlike the rising GOP chorus of Ukraine skepticism, such line items — while yet to be reconciled with the Senate’s version of the bill, which is still pending in that chamber — largely enjoy bipartisan support.

“The taxpayers deserve to know that investment is going where its intended to go,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a veteran-turned-lawmaker, said in an interview.

Crow led an effort in the House Armed Services Committee to include in the defense bill instructions to the Defense Department Inspector General to review, audit, investigate and otherwise inspect the Pentagon’s efforts to support Ukraine. He called the directive “necessary,” even if he does not count himself among the critics insinuating the Defense Department and the Ukrainians have failed to take the matter seriously enough.

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“In any war, there can be missteps and misallocation of supplies,” he explained. But Crow also acknowledged that there were likely to be limitations to the scope of accounting that the United States can provide.

“We’re not playing a mission of perfection here. This is a brutal, large-scale land war — house to house, street to street, trench to trench. There will be things lost,” he said. “We’re not trying to prevent every single piece from falling into the hands of the Russians, but we want to make sure it’s not happening at a large scale.”

Lawmakers, Pentagon officials and experts all note that, thus far, there are few tangible reasons for concern. Ukraine, they said, has been a proactive steward of the assistance it has received, readily reporting back about how U.S. military aid has been put to use — a gesture officials believe is in no small part a function of Kyiv’s effort to secure more of it. There also is a sense the Ukrainians have too much existential national pride at stake to risk compromising their effort to drive out the Russians by siphoning off weapons to the black market.

But even the specter of deadly materiel falling through the cracks has many alarmed — especially with the West pouring smaller, less-traceable arms into the country as Ukrainian civilians face desperate challenges to their basic survival.

Part of the concern is due to practical limitations. According to Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, the United States conducts weapons inspections in Ukraine “when and where security conditions permit,” at locations that “are not near the front line of Russia’s war against Ukraine.” Ryder declined to offer further details about the inspections program, citing concerns about operational security and force protection.

Yet the State Department has a limited budget for weapons inspectors positioned in Ukraine, and thus cannot examine every incoming shipment, according to officials. As of early November, U.S. monitors had performed just two in-person inspections since the war began in February — accounting for about 10 percent of the 22,000 U.S.-provided weapons, including Stinger surface-to-air missiles and Javelin antitank missiles, that require enhanced oversight.

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Crow and others want to see the State Department expand its roster of specialists to conduct more regular checks at in-country depots and transfer points.

Another reason is the law. “End-use monitoring” is governed by the Arms Export Control Act, which requires the presidential administration to provide “reasonable assurance” that recipients of military assistance are using the weapons for the purpose they were intended, and complying with any conditions set by the United States.

In most cases, that checkup happens solely at the point where weapons are transferred to Ukrainian custody. Only in special cases, usually when the weapons in question contain sensitive technology, is “enhanced” monitoring required of the recipient nation. That entails tracking serial numbers and submitting reports from the field. In Ukraine, such items include Stingers, Javelins, Avenger air defenses and night-vision devices.

The existing system is not good enough, some lawmakers argue, noting that before the war, Ukraine ranked fairly low on global corruption indexes.

“With the volumes of goods that we’re pushing, it’s our responsibility to have third-party oversight. We do it all over the world,” Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.) said in an interview. He pointed out that such practices are used everywhere from India to Israel and in countries “that are much higher on the corruption and transparency index” than Ukraine.

Waltz, who worked with Crow and others to push several of the defense bill’s bipartisan measures calling for increased oversight, supports keeping Ukrainian fighters well armed. But he believes the Biden administration has been too skittish about using Americans to get a clearer view of how U.S. weapons are being handled.

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“There are veterans’ groups running all over the country right now,” Waltz said, suggesting that they could be subcontracted to report back to the Pentagon and State Department on how weapons are being used closer to the front. Short of that, Waltz argues it ought to be possible to send U.S. inspectors not just to Ukraine’s central weapons depots, but “down to the brigade or even the battalion headquarters level,” without undue risk.

Thus far, the Biden administration has resisted pressure to send inspectors or other military personnel too deeply into Ukraine, for fear of fomenting a wider conflict. According to U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters, American specialists currently conduct weapons inspections unarmed — a condition that would likely be unsustainable if they were sent closer to the front lines.

The Biden administration has been adamant, officials and lawmakers who have been briefed by them say, that it will not tiptoe into a situation that risks being interpreted by the Kremlin as direct American involvement in the war.

But Waltz noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging a propaganda campaign accusing the United States and NATO of clandestinely operating in Ukraine to turn the population against Moscow. “That’s a self-limitation on the administration’s part,” he argued. “There is an acceptable risk to having people behind the front lines checking on where all this aid is going and helping the Ukrainians use it more effectively.”