The US is debating how to help a possible Zelenskyi government in exile

WASHINGTON — Democratic and Republican lawmakers are keen to send billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine as the government there desperately tries to repel a Russian invasion and ensure the safety of more than 1 million refugees displaced from the on flee a war-torn nation.

But with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army steadily advancing, members of Congress and US security officials are now discussing the challenges of backing the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy if the capital Kyiv falls and Moscow installs a puppet regime.

It’s a grim scenario that Biden administration officials have been reluctant to publicly acknowledge — especially since Zelenskyy and his troops have been holding the Russians back longer than many expected — but it’s one that’s increasingly being debated in Washington.

“One of the challenges we will face is where the seat of the Ukrainian government will be, and does it need to be moved to Lviv or somewhere west of the Dnieper? Or does that have to be moved somewhere outside of Ukraine?” Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who serves on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, said in a phone interview Friday .

“A lot is possible. I think it depends on how far the Russians push their offensive and how willing the Ukrainians are to resist,” Crow added. “But yes, if the Russians can continue to push their offensive with their fighting power and overtake the cities, we will have to consider working with Ukrainians wherever they are.”

Two members of the House Intelligence Committee — Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., and Mike Turner, R-Ohio — are building support for their bipartisan legislation committing the Biden administration to a strategy to support insurgents for independence develop if Putin is sacked Kyiv and occupies significant parts of Ukraine.

“We need to prepare for the possibility that the Russians will overrun Ukraine, in which case they will face fierce resistance and insurgency, and we need to be able to help that insurgency,” Krishnamoorthi told NBC News on Friday. “And we need to make sure they are equipped with lethal and non-lethal support and intelligence to hold off the Russians.”

The US sent more than $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine last year, including money for Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger air defense systems and other equipment and ammunition. But now the White House and Congress want to give Ukraine and other European allies another $10 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid while Russian bombings level cities and their troops push further into Ukraine.

Congressional leaders want to attach the additional $10 billion package — about half of which is for military aid — to a government funding bill they plan to pass by March 11 and send to President Joe Biden’s desk.

According to two sources and the bipartisan Ukraine caucus on Capitol Hill, Zelenskyy is expected to hold a video conference with US senators and some members of the House of Representatives on Saturday morning, and military aid is likely to be one of the many topics discussed.

But arms sales to foreign governments haven’t always gone well for the United States. Over the past two decades, the US has provided the Afghan government with billions of dollars worth of military vehicles and equipment. When Kabul fell last summer, the Taliban seized control of US-made planes, armored vehicles and deadly weapons.

The debate over how to support a potentially exiled Ukrainian government arose this week during a little-publicized exchange at a congressional hearing on how US allies are helping to secure America’s national defenses.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, asked a Pentagon official, “If there is no legitimate government in Ukraine in the near future, then what will? [Department of Defense] Are there instruments to support the legitimate leadership of Ukraine?”

When Mara Karlin, defense assistant secretary for strategy, plans and capabilities, objected, saying she was “a little wary of delving into hypotheses,” Larsen pressed again.

“I know we don’t want to think about it too openly. But I want to consider that we need to have options that we need to consider from the congressional side to be supportive,” Larsen Karlin said during Tuesday’s hearing. “So if you’re thinking about using existing agencies or additional agencies, at least within the [Department of Defense]it would be helpful to keep us updated on that.”

The very next day, a group of House Conservatives met behind closed doors and heard from Robert O’Brien, former President Donald Trump’s last national security adviser. O’Brien told NBC News he urged members of the Republican Study Committee that the United States and its allies should continue to support them as Zelenskyy and his administration are driven out of Kyiv, wherever they relocate.

“We should recognize them as a government-in-exile in Warsaw or London, and we should designate Ukraine as occupied Ukraine,” O’Brien said, repeating what he had told lawmakers. “The Russians must not be allowed to set up a puppet government.”

A defiant Zelenskyy, holed up in bunkers in Kyiv, has vowed to fight to the bitter end; He told European allies last week they might not see him alive again.

But lawmakers in Washington say it’s vital that Zelenskyy and his top officials stay alive — even if it means kidnapping them to another European capital.

“President Zelenskyy, the elected leaders and the military leaders of Ukraine must stay alive,” said a member of the House of Representatives. “At the same time, there is a significant value that they remain in Ukraine and on Ukrainian soil. And that has a political advantage. This has an optical advantage. And frankly, there’s a moral advantage to that too.”

“It has value to remain, but not to the extent that its life is at risk and there is no continuity of government,” lawmakers added. “Rule number one of resistance is you must stay alive. It may seem silly and simple, but it’s true. You’re no help to anyone if you can’t stay alive and lead and help the rally people keep fighting.” The US is debating how to help a possible Zelenskyi government in exile

Huynh Nguyen

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