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U.S. debates how to aid possible Zelenskyy government in exile

If Kyiv falls to Russia, lawmakers want to ensure the U.S. has a strategy for assisting a pro-democracy government as they prepare to deliver billions of dollars in emergency aid.

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

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

It’s a grim scenario that Biden administration officials are hesitant to acknowledge publicly — especially with Zelenskyy and his troops holding off the Russians longer than many expected — but it’s one that is increasingly being debated in Washington.

“One of the challenges that we’re going to face is where is going to be the seat of Ukrainian government, and is that going to have to relocate to Lviv or someplace west of the Dnieper River? Or is that going to have to relocate to some place 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 of things are possible. I think that that’s going to be a consequence of how far the Russians press their offensive, how much the Ukrainians are willing to resist,” Crow added. “But yes, if the Russians continue to push their offensive using the combat power that they have, and if they’re able to overtake the cities, then we’re gonna have to look at working with Ukrainians wherever they happen to be.”

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

“We have to prepare for the possibility that the Russians overrun Ukraine, in which case they’re going to meet with a ferocious resistance and insurgency, and we need to be able to help that insurgency,” Krishnamoorthi told NBC News on Friday. “And we have to make sure that they are equipped with lethal and non lethal assistance, as well as intelligence, to fight off the Russians.”

The U.S. over the past year has sent more than $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine, including money for Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger air-defense systems and other equipment and ammunition. But now the White House and Congress are aiming to deliver another $10 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and other European allies as Russian bombs flatten cities and their troops push further into Ukraine.

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

Zelenskyy is expected to hold a video-conference call with U.S. senators and some House members on Saturday morning, according to two sources and the bipartisan Ukraine Caucus on Capitol Hill, and military aid is likely to be one of the numerous issues discussed.

But supplying arms to foreign governments has not always gone well for the United States. For the past two decades, the U.S. supplied the Afghan government with billions of dollars in military vehicles and equipment. When Kabul fell last summer, the Taliban seized control of U.S.-made aircraft, armored vehicles and lethal weapons.

The debate over how to support a potentially exiled Ukrainian government came up this week during a little-noticed exchange at a congressional hearing on how U.S. allies help secure America’s national defense.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, asked a Pentagon official: “If there’s not a legitimate government in Ukraine at some point in the near future, what [Department of Defense] tools exist to support the legitimate leadership of Ukraine?”

When Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of Defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities, demurred and said she was “a little wary of getting into hypotheticals,” Larsen pressed again.

“I know it’s not something we want to contemplate too much openly. But I do want to contemplate that we have to have options that we have to consider from the congressional side to be supportive,” Larsen told Karlin during Tuesday's hearing. “So if you’re thinking about the use of existing authorities or additional authorities, at least within the [Department of Defense], it would be helpful to keep us informed of that.”

The very next day, a group of House conservatives met behind closed doors and heard from Robert O’Brien, who was former President Donald Trump’s last national security adviser. O’Brien told NBC News he urged members of the Republican Study Committee that if Zelenskyy and his administration are driven out of Kyiv, the United States and its allies should continue to support them no matter where they relocate.

“We should recognize them as a government in exile, in Warsaw or in London, and we ought to refer to Ukraine as occupied Ukraine,” O’Brien said, reiterating what he had told lawmakers. “The Russians can’t be allowed to put a puppet government in place.”

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

But lawmakers in Washington say it is critically important that Zelenskyy and his top officials stay alive — even if it means whisking them away to another European capital.

“President Zelenskyy, the elected leaders and the military leaders of Ukraine need to stay alive,” said a House Democratic lawmaker. "At the same time, there’s substantial value to them remaining in Ukraine and on Ukrainian soil. And there’s a political advantage to that. There’s an optics advantage to that. And frankly, there’s a morale advantage to that."

“There’s value in staying, but not to the extent that his life becomes in jeopardy and there is no continuity of government,” the lawmaker added. “The number one rule of resistance is: You have to stay alive. It might seem stupid and basic, but it’s true. You’re no help to anybody if you can’t stay alive and lead and help rally folks to continue fighting.”