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Biden Defense Officials Grilled by GOP Congress on Ukraine Aid

5 minute read

The Biden Administration said Tuesday the U.S. military has measures in place to guard against waste, fraud, and abuse in its multi-billion-dollar effort to support the Ukrainian government and arm its forces to repel the ongoing Russian invasion.

As the war enters its second year, concerns in Congress have mounted about American support for Ukraine. Republicans took over control of the House this year promising to scrutinize the more than $112 billion in military and economic aid that the Democrat-controlled Congress approved last year in four spending bills. In a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, senior Pentagon officials appeared before Congress for the first time this year to address ongoing U.S. support as well as the accountability and tracking measures designed to ensure that American-made weapons are used on the battlefield as intended.

“We’re not just taking the Ukrainians words for it,” Colin Kahl, undersecretary of Defense for policy, told the committee. “They provide us information on their inventories, their transfer logs, we have provided them handheld scanners, that data gets transmitted directly back to us so that we can keep custody.”

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A small number of U.S. military forces working out of the embassy in Kyiv have conducted six on-site inspections to ensure that Ukrainian forces are properly accounting for the arms they’ve received. “There’s no evidence that the Ukrainians are diverting it to the black market or something else,” Kahl said. “That’s not surprising, given the intensity of the fight and the fact that they are clearly using what we are providing them—and what our allies and partners are providing them—to maximum effect.”

Since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, the U.S. has sent a wide range of weapons systems to Ukraine, including hundreds of anti-tank missiles, kamikaze drones and various anti-armor munitions. It’s not easy to keep a close-eye on their use because of the limited U.S. presence on the ground in Ukraine, according to a January report published by the government watchdogs at the Departments of Defense, State and U.S. Agency of International Development. When the U.S. military advised and assisted a foreign military to this extent in previous wars, the U.S. had thousands of troops on the ground. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, the U.S. military was there to help train local forces and ensure American-made weaponry was accounted for.

“This is an active combat zone,” Kahl said. “So there are inherent restrictions. But we are trying to maximize the use of technology and the people we do have on the ground to get the best sight-picture as possible.”

Representative Mike Rogers of Alabama, the Republican committee chairman, said in his opening statement that the Biden Administration has issued more than $75 billion worth of military, economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and NATO allies thus far—with more money to follow. “These are unprecedented numbers,” he said. “And it requires an unprecedented level of oversight by Congress.”

Ukraine has long been considered as one of the most corrupt nations in Europe, and it ranked 116 out of 180 countries on the annual Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International in January. It’s an image that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has tried to reverse in recent months with an internal crackdown. In his biggest shakeup of the war, several senior Ukrainian officials were fired or resigned in late January due to corruption allegations. Several deputies at the Defense Ministry were fired after an investigative journalist found the government purchased food for the military at more than twice the market prices.

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Fears that a massive U.S. foreign investment could go awry due to corruption and lax planning loom large in the wake of the military collapse in Afghanistan, where the U.S. spent at least $84 billion to train and equip 300,000-plus troops and police. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the watchdog that oversees U.S. efforts in the war, issued a 148-page report Monday that drew parallels between America’s support for Afghanistan and the current military assistance given to Ukraine.

“There is an understandable desire amid a crisis to focus on getting money out the door and to worry about oversight later, but too often that creates more problems than it solves,” the report said. “Given the ongoing conflict and the unprecedented volume of weapons being transferred to Ukraine, the risk that some equipment ends up on the black market or in the wrong hands is likely unavoidable.”

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Robert Storch, the Department of Defense (DoD) inspector general who appeared alongside Kahl at the hearing, said his office is currently probing the issue. “We don’t go out and count the missiles,” he said. “It’s up to the DoD to meet the requirements of the law and the policies that implement it, regarding monitoring, and then we do oversight to make sure that’s happening.”

Storch said his office has completed five Ukraine-related oversight projects and currently has around 20 ongoing and planned audits and evaluations. It has also set up a hotline where tipsters have a confidential means to report fraud, waste, abuse and other violations of law.

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com