In May of 2022, just over two months after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, US President Joe Biden signed into law the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act. This piece of bipartisan legislation recalled the historic program used by the United States during World War II to help supply its allies and ensure the defeat of Nazi Germany. Ukrainian diplomats worked hard to extend the Lend-Lease program beyond September 2023, but it expired on September 30.
The Ukraine Lend-Lease Act was a powerful symbol of the US commitment to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression. In practice, however, the United States transferred $46.6 billion worth of munitions, weapons, and other military aid to Ukraine in fiscal years 2022-2023 using other authorities besides the Lend-Lease mechanism.
Originally a World War II-era program, the Lend-Lease Act was created under US President Franklin Roosevelt for the purpose of lending and leasing military equipment desperately needed by US allies to stop Hitler’s war machine. Under the terms of the original 1941 Lend-Lease program, Roosevelt sent military materials first and foremost to Great Britain and then, after it was attacked by Hitler, to the Soviet Union.
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In 2022, the existence of Lend-Lease made it possible for Biden to keep aid to Ukraine flowing without requiring new action from Congress, as is the case with supplemental funding. It also sent a clear message to both Ukraine and Russia that more weapons would continue to flow to Ukraine as needed for the country’s defense.
However, the use of the Lend-Lease was deprioritized due to the existence of newer alternative streams for assistance. Military aid efforts instead focused on three other American budget programs: The Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), the Foreign Military Financing program (FMF), and the Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA), which have all provided aid to Ukraine without any requirements for the return or reimbursement of weapons.
The Biden administration’s decision to use non-Lend-Lease budget channels since the full-scale invasion has been attributed to the administration’s preference for providing military aid to Ukraine without any loan or lease elements. In 2022, the White House told Voice of America they were “prioritizing security assistance for Ukraine, for which they will not need to return the funds later.”
Nevertheless, the Act is considered a powerful symbol of political support. “Naming a military assistance program for Ukraine as ‘Lend-Lease’ sends a message that the West is serious about responding to Russia’s invasion,” wrote the Atlantic Council’s Thomas S. Warrick in 2022. “[Putin] is enough of a student of history to fear what happens when the United States increases aid to countries that he has invaded or threatened.” Despite its historic significance, current aid to Ukraine has thus far not operated through the use of the Lend-Lease Act.
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Although the expiration of the Ukraine Lend-Lease Act does not impact the current levels of US military assistance to Ukraine, a renewal of the Act remains an important declaration of support and a significant backup plan for the United States in the event of delayed funding.
Considering the ability of small minorities in Congress to hold up the passage of legislation that has strong bipartisan support, political and bureaucratic barriers and limitations can make voting on aid packages sluggish. In the House, a few members can block progress within the Republican conference, even when a program has majority support. In the Senate, a single senator can deny unanimous consent, forcing the Senate to use cumbersome procedures to end filibusters. Lend-Lease could be an additional tool to clear assistance through simplified procedures. It may also be worth reviving for the purpose of overcoming Congressional gridlock that delays the passage of regular appropriations bills.
Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, argued in July that “the option of leasing or renting weapons” should ideally remain possible through the Lend-Lease Act in the event of delays or difficulties securing weapons for Ukraine through other packages. She is currently working to extend the Act’s term of validity for another year so that the mechanism stays in place, should stoppages occur in the approval or delivery of other forms of aid. Valery Chaly, former Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, told the BBC’s Ukrainian service that there was still a possibility Lend-Lease will be extended due to amendments in the 2024 defense budget.
If revived, the Lend-Lease Act will likely remain a backup option for America’s other budget programs. The White House and responsible members in both Houses are now focused on the task of authorizing continued funding for Ukraine. This is certainly the priority in order to ensure Russia’s defeat. But the renewal of the Lend-Lease Act would also send an important signal of America’s continued support for Ukraine.
Olivia Yanchik is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
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The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.