Biden seeks $33 billion war chest to support Ukraine, Zelenskiy wants quick approval

·3-min read

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden asked Congress for $33 billion to support Ukraine - a dramatic escalation of U.S. funding for the war with Russia - and the Ukrainian president pleaded with lawmakers to give the request a swift approval.

The funding request includes over $20 billion for weapons, ammunition and other military assistance, as well as $8.5 billion in direct economic assistance to the Ukrainian government and $3 billion in humanitarian aid. It is intended to cover the war effort's needs through September, the end of the fiscal year.

"We need this bill to support Ukraine in its fight for freedom," Biden said at the White House after signing the request on Thursday. "The cost of this fight - it's not cheap - but caving to aggression is going to be more costly."

The United States has ruled out sending its own or NATO forces to Ukraine but Washington and its European allies have supplied weapons to Kyiv such as drones, Howitzer heavy artillery, anti-aircraft Stinger and anti-tank Javelin missiles.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed what he called "a very important step" by the United States.

"I am thankful to the American people and personally to President Biden for it. I hope that Congress will quickly approve this request for help to our state," he said in a late night video address.

Biden's proposal would also let U.S. officials seize more Russian oligarchs' assets, give the cash from those seizures to Ukraine, and further criminalize sanctions dodging, the White House said.

That would include letting the Justice Department use the strict U.S. racketeering law once deployed against the mafia, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, to build cases against people who evade sanctions.

Biden also wants to give prosecutors more time to build such cases by extending the statute of limitations on money laundering prosecutions to 10 years, instead of five. He would also make it a criminal act to hold money knowingly taken from corrupt dealings with Russia, according to a summary of the legislative proposals.

The measures are part of U.S. efforts to isolate and punish Russia for its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, as well as to help Kyiv recover from a war that has reduced cities to rubble and forced more than 5 million people to flee abroad.

Biden has already asked for record peacetime sums to fund Pentagon research and development, and efforts to counter perceived threats from countries including Russia.

The full package represents a fifth of pre-war Ukrainian annual economic output, and the $20 billion U.S. military assistance alone is about a third of what the Russian military spent overall last year, before the war began.

A package would include food security assistance, economic stimulus for Ukraine and funding to use the Cold War-era Defense Production Act to expand domestic production of key minerals in short supply due to the war.

But the funding measure may face issues on Capitol Hill. Biden asked for $22.5 billion in money for the COVID-19 response in March and Democrats with narrow control of the Senate and House of Representatives may push to have that passed at the same time as the Ukraine measure.

While lawmakers are broadly supportive of spending on Ukraine, Republican congressional aides said on Thursday that efforts to combine the war funding with the pandemic response could make it difficult to pass.

"I don't care how they do it," Biden said. "They can do it separately or together, but we need them both."

U.S. military aid to Ukraine has topped $3 billion since Russia launched what it calls a "special military operation" to demilitarize Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext.

The United States and its European allies have frozen $30 billion of assets held by wealthy individuals with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including yachts, helicopters, real estate and art, the Biden administration has said.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and David Ljunggren; Editing by Alistair Bell and Rosalba O'Brien)

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