Biden's Surprise Visit To Ukraine : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden traveled to Ukraine on Monday on an unannounced trip to mark the anniversary of Russia's invasion of the country. But back home, more Americans are growing weary of continuing to support a war that could stretch on for years.

This episode: voting correspondent Miles Parks, White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, and congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Research and fact-checking by Devin Speak.

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Biden's Surprise Visit To Ukraine

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SAMANTHA: Hi. This is Samantha (ph), and I'm looking out over Avalon Harbor on beautiful Catalina Island. This podcast was recorded at...


1:06 p.m. on February 20, 2023.

SAMANTHA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll be back on the mainland waiting for my next chance to come over to the island. OK. Enjoy the show.


PARKS: That's a radio producer. You can kind of hear she's got an ear for it. I can hear the water kind of swishing. It took me there. You know?

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Sounds beautiful.

PARKS: That's good. That's a really good radio production. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

WALSH: And I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

PARKS: And President Biden made an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Monday as this week marks the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Franco, let's start there. The president making an unannounced visit to an active war zone seems pretty remarkable.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's a pretty big deal. I mean, a president traveling into a war-torn country is always going to be huge. But in this case, Biden is doing it where the United States does not have a presence. That's the difference of, like, going into Iraq or Afghanistan. And look, I've been to Ukraine twice, traveled to Kyiv. It is not - you can't just fly into Kyiv. So this is a big deal. You know, the White House told us reporters that Biden didn't decide or give a final word until Friday that he was - the risks were worth it. And they also did tell us that before going into Ukraine, they did give Russia a few hours' heads-up for de-escalation purposes to not let this turn into something bigger than it needs to be.

PARKS: Wow. And so what was the point of his visit? Did he make any remarks or announcements kind of tied to this?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, the big part, Miles, is symbolism, is showing support, is putting a foot there and shaking Zelenskyy's hand at the anniversary of the war. But, yes, the administration did announce that they were going to provide another half-billion dollars in additional assistance. You know, we're going to get more details soon. But Biden said it included military support such as Javelin missiles, ammunition. No word yet on whether F-16 jets are involved. That's something that Ukraine has been pushing for, and there's been a lot of talk about it, but we have not heard anything about that just yet.

PARKS: Deirdre, any response from Congress on this visit or also on this new commitment of more money going to Ukraine?

WALSH: On the visit itself, it's been pretty split. Democrats so far, since we've heard about the president's visit, have been praising the president for going and saying that it's an important time to stand with Ukraine. You know, a year ago, Congress was largely united in terms of support for Ukraine and saying how it was so important to stand with the country for the sake of democracy. But since that time, things have really changed on Capitol Hill. I mean, just in the last election, there's been a leadership change, and now the House is run by Republicans. But there's also been a lot more public pushback - I would say notably mostly from congressional Republicans - criticizing President Biden and pushing this America First idea, which former President Trump talked about a lot when he was in office, and he still talks about as he's running for president again. But there is a faction inside the Republican Party that is opposed to giving more money to Ukraine. And a lot of those folks have been very active on social media since the president's trip was announced, saying, you know, the president hasn't gone to the scene of a terrible train derailment in Ohio, and he's going to Ukraine.

I did think it was really important and an important signal when ahead of the president's trip, the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, was part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers that went to the Munich Security Conference. This is a big conference that, you know, lawmakers go to pretty much regularly. But this year, the focus - since its coming around the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine starting, there was a lot of focus on Ukraine and continued support. And McConnell, at the top of his remarks, went out of his way to downplay the split inside his own party on the issue of Ukraine. And he said reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated. Like, look, I'm here. And he said, don't look at Twitter. Look at the people in power. Look at me. Look at Kevin McCarthy - House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. What he didn't say about House Speaker McCarthy is his, you know, recent comments about continuing support for Ukraine is I support Ukraine, but no more blank check.

PARKS: Right. So it's not all Republicans have this kind of skepticism of this money going to Ukraine, but a growing number of Republicans definitely do. And that kind of ties into the public's perception - right, Franco? - of how the public over the last year has kind of changed their view on this war and how much they support America funding a big part of it.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I think no question about it. I mean, I think what, you know, some of those groups, some of those Republicans are speaking to is some of that hesitancy among Americans. And polls show that support for U.S. aid is softening. Just as an example, at the beginning of the war, there was, like, 60% of Americans backed sending weapons to Ukraine. That was in a - you know, an AP poll. But, you know, now it's around 48%. So that's a drop. And you're seeing that in other polls as well.

Now, you look closer at those polls, they're largely divided by party. But that is a significant thing that, you know, the public is watching or the administration is watching for. And you can make an argument that this was part of this trip, was to - you know, for Biden to go to Ukraine not only to show support for Ukraine, but also to send a message back home to here in the United States to explain, hey, this war is not only in Ukraine's interest, but it is also in the interests of the United States. And it is important to stop Russia.

WALSH: I also think it's worth pointing out, Miles, that a lot of the House Republicans that are strong supporters of this America First idea, supporters of President Trump's ideology about America leading and leaving a lot of the support to Ukraine to other organizations like NATO - there are a lot of progressive Democrats who have questioned how much money the United States is giving Ukraine. There was a letter that came out at the end of last year from progressive Democrats in the House that were suggesting that the president should urge a negotiated solution to sort of try to help end the war in Ukraine.

ORDOÑEZ: Very controversial.

WALSH: That was very controversial, and it was denounced by all top House Democratic leaders, Senate Democratic leaders at the time. And the head of the Progressive Caucus, Pramila Jayapal, was forced to retract that letter. But I think it does show what Franco was talking about, that there is some weakening support across the political spectrum. It's just - I think it's louder on the right right now because Democrats have been standing behind President Biden's policies for the most part. But I do think as the war continues and calls for additional money continue, there will be more bipartisan questions about how the money is being spent.

PARKS: How much money in total has gone to Ukraine over the last year?

ORDOÑEZ: So the United States has allocated over $112 billion to Ukraine. That's a lot of money. You know, the majority of it is in military spending, but it's also in economic support. So the United States is essentially helping prop up the Kyiv government, making sure that officials continue to get paid, that police officers still get paid, that teachers get - still get paid, and that the electricity stays on. A lot of that money also goes to utilities and things like that.

PARKS: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. But after the break, I want to dig into more - into where that money's going and the efforts within the government to make sure it's being spent where it's supposed to be.

And we're back. And Franco, one of the signature moments of the Biden presidency so far was ending the 20-year involvement in Afghanistan. Now, I know - and I can't say this loud enough - obviously, the situation in Ukraine is very different. But you have reported a lot on the pitfalls that came up with that involvement that are kind of similar when you are sending so much money overseas.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. There's definitely parallels. It's different, but there are things that can be learned from it. When you are raising or allocating this amount of money so quickly in a year's time, there's going to be problems with that money. I actually spoke with John Sopko. He was the special inspector general in the Afghanistan war. He reported on failure after failure in Afghanistan - money going missing, construction projects that weren't completed being built - and he basically said that a country can only absorb so much before things start to go missing.

JOHN SOPKO: Think of it like this. You take a sponge, you put it on your kitchen counter and you fill it with water. Drip, drip, drip. It holds the water, holds the water, then all of a sudden it reaches a certain point, and then all the water starts spreading out from that sponge.

PARKS: Well, and the unspoken thing here - right? - is that Ukraine does have a history - a big history - with corruption before this war started. How is that coming into play here?

ORDOÑEZ: It's a big deal. I mean, it has - look, I mean, this has been a problem for Ukraine for a very long time. It has one of the highest rankings on international transparency indexes showing that corruption is a problem. I mean, Sopko - just to add one more example, Sopko is very concerned that salaries are going to Ukrainians. That was one of the areas that was one of the biggest problems in Afghanistan because they were being paid to ghost teachers, ghost officers, ghost officials. And he and others are worried about that same kind of thing happening in Ukraine, which, as you point out, has a history with corruption, has many oligarchs who kind of work in some of these underground areas. And, you know, there's concern that, you know, they could be propped up. They could take advantage of these things, especially as the war goes on and especially after the war, when they're going to need billions and billions and billions of more dollars to rebuild the country, rebuild the infrastructure. And then you are going to get those kind of construction contracts that are ripe for that kind of taking advantage of.

PARKS: One of the most striking things in the piece that you wrote was even President Biden is on the record before the war started, criticizing Ukraine for their corruption. So this isn't something that people are making up. This is something that the current president has talked about in recent years. Deirdre, can you talk a little bit about Congress's oversight plan for all of this money?

WALSH: Well, as we know, the - oversight is a big part of the House Republicans' agenda, specifically oversight of the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan. So it's interesting to me Franco's reporting on this issue because a lot of House Republicans bring up just the sheer amount of money that we're sending to Ukraine in one year. And think about how long the steady stream of money from the U.S. was going to Afghanistan. And there's a lot of questions from House Republicans about the decisions to spend this kind of money and what it's going to be going to, who's going to be overseeing it. The U.S. doesn't currently have a special inspector general just focused on Ukraine. There's been some hearings, a Senate hearing on this issue. I would expect the House Republicans to have a hearing as well. But because this issue splits the Republican Party, my guess is that they will spend more time focusing on the Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan than having a lot of oversight hearings on Ukraine because House Speaker Kevin McCarthy knows it's a divisive issue inside his party.

I do think this issue will come up again this fall. There's going to be the annual spending bill for the Defense Department, the State Department, where there'll be new requests, I would assume, for foreign aid, military aid for Ukraine. And I think that's where you will see likely bipartisan calls to say, like, hey, we support more money, but we need to make sure we know where it's going. And I have heard Democrats raise the issue of, hey, look, we understand Republicans haven't been as supportive as they were a year ago. We're OK with putting some controls on the money. It'll be interesting to see what those controls might be.

PARKS: Franco, can you tell us a little bit more about the rest of President Biden's trip? What are the plans?

ORDOÑEZ: President Biden is going to be in Poland, where he's going to talk and mark the anniversary of Russia's invasion in Ukraine. He's likely to talk about the NATO alliance and the importance of the NATO alliance, as well as committing to protecting all the countries in the NATO alliance that surround Ukraine, for example. He's also going to speak with the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, as well as some of the other leaders in the area, in the Baltic region. And one of the big topics of conversation will be, you know, supporting Ukraine, but also how to support the NATO alliance and make sure that that eastern flank of the NATO alliance, you know, stays strong amid, you know, Russian aggression.

PARKS: All right. Well, we will leave it there for now. I'm Miles Parks. I cover voting.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

WALSH: And I'm Deirdre Walsh. I cover Congress.

PARKS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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