As the war begun by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, approaches its second anniversary, the Ukrainians have reason to worry about their ability to continue resisting the Russian effort to conquer and occupy their country. Their thus-far successful resistance has depended on assistance from the West, especially military supplies from the United States. In December, however, Republicans in Congress blocked a $110 billion military aid package for Ukraine (as well as for Israel, but the opposition centered on Ukraine) that the Biden administration put forward. According to some polls, 60 percent of self-identified Republicans favor decreasing American assistance to Ukraine. Without the ongoing American provision of weapons and ammunition, Ukraine is all too likely to lose its war.
The opposition to the pending aid bill has domestic political causes that have nothing to do with Ukraine. It stems in part from the sharp partisan polarization in the United States on almost all issues: a Democratic president, Joe Biden, initiated and presides over American policy toward the war, so Republicans–some of them– oppose it. Moreover, some Republicans have made approval of military assistance for Ukraine conditional on a change of policy by the Biden administration on a matter about which they (and not they alone) have grave concerns: the security of America’s southern border.
Still, skeptics and outright opponents have made serious criticisms of that policy, and they require serious responses if aid to Ukraine is to be sustained. Five such criticisms seem to have particular resonance with at least parts of the American public.
1. The country and the government the United States is assisting are corrupt and not worthy of American support.
Since becoming independent in 1991 Ukraine has suffered from corruption, sometimes on a very large scale. The current government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, is making an effort to reduce it. Moreover, the United States has often aligned itself with countries whose domestic affairs did not conform to American preferences–perhaps most notably during World War II when it allied with Josef Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union against Adolf Hitler’s genocidal Nazi regime in Germany–when it served American interests to do so. Finally, countries aligned with the United States have often come to adopt American political institutions and practices. Taiwan, for example, began as a dictatorship but became a democracy, and remains one today. It is in any case certain that the conquest of Ukraine by the even more corrupt, as well as brutal and autocratic, regime of Vladimir Putin will not promote the kind of politics Americans favor.
2. Supporting Ukraine will drag the United States into a nuclear war with Russia.
When the United States opposes a nuclear-armed country such as Russia–or China, or North Korea, or perhaps soon the Islamic Republic of Iran–it runs at least a theoretical risk that nuclear weapons will be used. The only certain way to avoid such an outcome, however, is to offer no resistance to Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran, and instead allow them to achieve they want. That is not, to say the least, a formula for a peaceful, prosperous, democratic world. Moreover, the United States faced this problem in the Cold War and found a way of coping with it: deterrence–the threat to retaliate, with its own nuclear weapons if necessary, against Soviet aggression in Europe. That formula kept the peace in Europe and has worked, as well, in the case of Ukraine. True, Vladimir Putin has hinted at the use of nuclear weapons since his invasion began, and the Biden administration, perhaps out of an abundance of caution in response to those hints, has supplied less firepower and at a slower pace to the Ukrainian armed forces than Ukrainians (and not they alone) have wished. Still, Ukraine has received enough military support to thwart, thus far, Russia’s imperial ambitions.
In fact, stopping support for Ukraine poses an arguably greater threat of nuclear war than continuing it. For Putin has all but promised that, if he succeeds in subduing Ukraine, he will continue his campaign forcibly to reassemble the Soviet Union, and success in Ukraine will surely encourage him to do just that. The obvious next targets are the three Baltic countries–Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Because they are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United States is bound by treaty to come to their defense; and because of their size and location they are unlikely to be successfully defended with only non-nuclear armaments.
3. The Europeans, who share a continent with Ukraine, should be taking responsibility for defending it. They are wealthy enough to do so.
The underperformance in security affairs of America’s European allies goes back to the Cold War. They can and should spend more on defense, a point that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has underscored. Some are in fact spending more, or at least have said they will do so, although such promises do not, historically, have a perfect record of fulfillment. It is important to note, however, that the Europeans have not chosen to be bystanders in this conflict. They have already given substantial military and especially economic assistance to the Ukrainian government and are sheltering about 6 million Ukrainian refugees. Overall American expenditures for Ukraine come to 0.l33 percent of the country’s GDP. Eleven European countries–Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Denmark, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Great Britain and the Czech Republic–have contributed a higher percentage of theirs.
Even if and as Europeans make greater contributions to the defense of their own continent, however, two facts of European life will limit what they do. First, developing a genuinely formidable European military force would require not only pooling their economic resources but also placing the forces they deploy under a single command. This would involve abandoning a basic prerogative of sovereignty, something that European countries, despite their membership in the European Union and like virtually all countries in the world, are reluctant to do. Second, for a European military force to be powerful enough to act independently of the United States–in supporting Ukraine, for example–it would have to have its own nuclear arsenal, since it confronts a nuclear-armed Russia. While Britain and France have their own small stockpiles of nuclear weapons, a single European force would require German nuclear weapons as well, with all of them, again, under a single command. Neither would be politically easy to accomplish, and the first perhaps not politically desirable.
4. Ukraine has no strategy for victory. By continuing to support it the United States would be entangling itself in yet another endless war.
Ukraine can win the war by not losing it, because that would prevent Vladimir Putin from reaching the goal for which he began the conflict: subduing and annexing, in fact if not formally, a neighboring country. The war does now appear to have become a stalemate; but that can change. Indeed, it will change, to Ukraine’s and America’s disadvantage, if the United States ceases to provide military supplies. If the stalemate does persist, some kind of ceasefire, or even a truce such as the one on the Korean peninsula, may come into effect. That outcome would be less than optimal in that Russia would still occupy Ukrainian territory; but it would leave most of Ukraine intact and independent, which is the overriding American and European– as well, of course, as Ukrainian–interest.
Even in that case, Ukraine would continue to need Western support to deter a renewed Russian assault. Thus the commitment to Ukraine would indeed become open-ended; but so was the American commitment to Western Europe during the Cold War, a policy that, in retrospect, looks very well judged.
The use of the term “endless war” by critics of the current policy toward Ukraine is meant to tie it to the unsatisfactory conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The differences between the ongoing war in Ukraine and what are now widely regarded in the United States as two twenty-first century misadventures, are, however, more salient than the similarities. The Ukraine war, bearing as it does on the future of Europe–a major concern of the United States since its founding in the 18th century–ranks, in the hierarchy of American interests, well above the fates of the other two countries. Unlike those two, moreover, the United States is not engaged in combat in Ukraine, so the war there is causing no American casualties. And whereas Afghanistan and Iraq proved not to possess the social, economic, and political bases for decent stable, pro-American governments, Ukraine does have what is needed to sustain such a government–unless prevented from doing so by Russia.
5. Ukraine is a distraction and a diversion from the more important task of counterbalancing China. Support for Ukraine overstretches the United States.
China does indeed pose a formidable threat to American allies and American interests in East Asia. So too, as it happens, does the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East, and an arguably more urgent threat as Iranian proxies interrupt shipping in the Red Sea and Iran itself moves to acquire nuclear weapons. Abandoning Ukraine would not necessarily fortify deterrence of China, however. It might, to the contrary, encourage the Chinese dictator, Xi Jinping, to believe that the United States was in retreat in the world, creating a golden opportunity to seize by force the island of Taiwan, which the communist government in Beijing claims it should control.
Moreover, the United States has spent only about five percent of its defense budget in support for Ukraine, and most of that money stays in the United States, paying for the American arms the Ukrainians receive. More broadly, the resources of the American-led coalitions that oppose the aggressive designs of Russia in Europe, China in East Asia, and Iran in the Middle East exceed those of each of the three revisionist powers the coalitions seek to contain. Nor does the United States need a larger army: defending its interests in the three regions requires naval and air forces, not ground troops.
Still the danger of overstretch is a real one, and in one crucial way American capabilities already fall short of covering the nation’s overseas commitments. The American defense-industrial base has atrophied since the end of the Cold War to the point that the United States might not be able to sustain a war of any length against China even if it had no other military obligations anywhere. As Kori Schake, a former Pentagon official now at the American Enterprise Institute has written in The Atlantic:
In a major conflict, the US would run out of munitions in a few weeks, and in less than a week for some crucial categories. The quantity of weapons we are providing Ukraine is marginal compared with necessary weapons that we have not stocked.
For its own armed forces and those of its allies, America needs more planes, ships, and missiles as well as a far larger stockpile of ammunition. It needs, therefore, more factories actively producing war materiel. That, in turn, requires that Americans spend appreciably more on defense than they are currently doing.
Given the natural tendency of democracies to prefer domestic to foreign spending, as well as the nation’s current fiscal circumstances–with large and growing budget deficits– the public demand for such a policy is notable for its absence. No current presidential candidate has advocated it and none can be expected to do so. Without higher defense spending, however, and even without supporting the Ukrainians in their war against Russia, such peace as the world now enjoys is at serious risk.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter professor emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose. His book The Titans of the Twentieth Century: How They Made History and the History They Made–about Woodrow Wilson, Lenin, Hitler, Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gandhi, Ben-Gurion, and Mao–will be published in September.
Image: A man draped in a flag depicting the Ukrainian trident. (Unsplash: Alice Kotlyarenko)
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