It’s been 10 months since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the second phase of his invasion of Ukraine, aiming to dismantle its government and replace it with one of his liking while annexing large portions of Ukrainian territory. Instructively, Putin launched the first phase of his operations against Ukraine in 2014 when Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president.
With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent address to a joint session of Congress and the Biden administration’s announcement of another $1.8 billion in military assistance, including the first-ever provision of a Patriot air defense battery, criticism of U.S. aid has been ramped up in some quarters, including among American conservatives.
To be clear, many of today’s critics were opposed to significant military assistance to Ukraine from the start. They warned that Russia might resort to nuclear weapons, that Russia would win anyway, that Russia’s core interests in Ukraine meant that they’d never give up the fight, that prior offers of potential Ukrainian accession to NATO meant that Russia had no choice but to preemptively invade, that Ukraine is corrupt with U.S. security aid somehow returning to America to line the pockets of corrupt politicians, that sending advanced weapons to Ukraine was escalatory and might widen the war, and that China is the main threat and any assistance to Ukraine is a zero-sum game that increases the risk in the Taiwan Strait.
Time has shown most of these concerns to be wrong or overblown, though the last matter, deterring China is far more complicated than one of simple weapons deliveries to Taiwan, given American deterrence is closely linked to credibility and a Russian victory in Ukraine would serve to encourage, not discourage, China.
Drawing on a career as an Army intelligence officer and service as young Reagan-appointed foreign affairs staffer in the Pentagon, I’ll first lay out some facts and then discuss current events and possible outcomes.
How Did We Get Here?
First, this war didn’t have to happen. It’s not a coincidence that both times Putin invaded Ukraine occurred when he perceived he was facing weak American administrations — Obama, and then Biden, fresh off the embarrassing debacle in Kabul. Were President Donald Trump reelected, Putin wouldn’t have rolled the iron dice.
Second, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman had a hand in Trump’s narrow defeat. Imagine the counterfactual in a world in which that U.S. Army officer combat veteran decided that the elected president of the United States had more authority to conduct foreign policy than he did on behalf of the amorphous unelected “U.S. national security interagency.” It was Vindman’s belief that the president was acting against the consensus opinion of the Executive Branch Trump himself led that caused Vindman to breach the classified contents of a phone call between Trump and Zelensky. This triggered a partisan impeachment vote in December 2019.
It bears noting that during the Cold War era, a Ukrainian-born naturalized citizen national security staffer would find their actions and advice carefully vetted for conflicts of interest. It pains to state it, but for Vindman’s vain second-guessing of the president, Putin wouldn’t have risked an invasion of Ukraine with Trump in office, sparing the lives of some 20,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. In Vindman’s case, be careful about what you wish for—Trump out of office—you might get it.
Lastly, we must deal with the world as it is and not as we wish it to be.
For whatever the rationale, Putin launched a massive offensive against Ukraine in February. Endlessly going over the why must not obstruct the present reality. Putin didn’t have to invade. He did. Deal with it and figure out how to best look after American interests.
The Ukrainian government, as is the case with most governments that arose from the rot of the Soviet Union, has struggled with corruption. Though an argument can be made that the searing experience of this war and the admirable response of Ukrainian civil society to it could give the Ukrainians a chance to enhance rule of law as they emerge from war. Even so, the vast majority of U.S. assistance to Ukraine has been in the form of weapons and ammunition, most of which is being backfilled right now — and most of which is made in America by American workers.
Context is Key
Since the start of the Biden administration, some $21.9 billion of military aid has been delivered. Going back to Russia’s first assault in 2014, the U.S. has provided about $24 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. By comparison, in 1973, as Israel was being attacked by Syria, Egypt, and others with support from the Soviet Union during the Yom Kippur War, President Richard Nixon provided $2.2 billion in military assistance. He did this by launching Operation Nickel Grass, a massive military airlift of arms and ammunition that, in today’s dollars, provided $15 billion of aid over a few weeks. Looked at another way, as a share of the U.S. economy then, that assistance today would be the equivalent of $36 billion of military hardware — 50 percent more to Israel in a few weeks than provided to Ukraine over eight years.
Of course, some of the discussion over aid to Ukraine has been confusing with Russia doing its part to sow distrust in already fertile fields. Aid amounts must first be appropriated by Congress and then are spent by the administration over time. Further, some 72 percent of U.S. assistance is in the form of military aid, not cash, with much of the funding taking five years to work its way through the defense procurement system.
And there is no scenario under which a Russian victory in Ukraine would be a positive for U.S. national security interests. Putin is an irredentist, pining to restore the past glory of the USSR or the Russian Empire before that. Ukraine was just his most ambitious project to date.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It’s clear Russia has lost the initiative and is struggling to keep an army in the field in the face of cold weather and constant Ukrainian attacks on the Russian logistics system. It’s hard to believe, but Russian soldiers have not been properly equipped for winter weather, aren’t getting enough calories, and aren’t being rotated off the front lines. Morale in the Russian ranks is terrible while both morale and confidence are high among the Ukrainians. Putin has bitten off more than he can chew, and he must be increasingly concerned about maintaining support at home and among his inner circle.
Lastly, due to decades of neglect, our ability to build the complex weapons systems required for modern, high-intensity war has atrophied and this is even more so for naval vessels. As a result, a $19 billion backlog of weapons intended for Taiwan has developed, reducing deterrents aimed at the Chinese Communist Party’s military ambitions to forcibly take Taiwan.
Here is where the Biden administration’s governance by autopilot and the permanent foreign policy establishment’s unimaginative Eurocentric groupthink combine for maximum danger. Ukraine is important and losing there will harm U.S. interests and embolden China. But Ukraine is an even bigger issue for Europe and the more America helps, the less the Europeans will, as has been the case in the past and is again now. (Trump had squeezed our NATO allies to pay their fair share of defense, but there’s a strong temptation to backslide under Biden.)
Navigating difficult tradeoffs while deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan, Japan, India, and other nearby nations may be beyond the Biden team’s ability. Yet, as Americans, we must wish Biden success in this endeavor. Allowing Putin to win in Ukraine would be ten times worse than the loss in Afghanistan but China seizing Taiwan would be 100 times worse than that.