Something has been lost in the noise of the national conversation about President Donald Trump’s relationship with Ukraine and his handling of military aid to the Eastern European country. The conventional wisdom that dominates Washington and is reflexively referenced in the impeachment inquiry chatter holds that this aid is crucial to U.S. national security. But that just isn’t true.
There are many compelling reasons to stop sending taxpayer dollars and military aid to Kiev. While this assistance certainly won’t be the centerpiece of the upcoming hearings and investigations, hopefully Americans will become more aware of the pitfalls of aid to Ukraine and begin to challenge U.S. officials over the issue.
The $391 million in U.S. military aid that was recently released to the Ukrainian government—and is now at the center of the current political controversy—is the latest of nearly $1.5 billion of U.S. taxpayer dollars that have gone to Kiev since the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Overall U.S. assistance, which nearly doubled between 2013 and 2016 to more than half a billion dollars annually, is aimed at building resilience in the Ukrainian government against external Russian destabilization, and against internal threats of corruption and anti-democratic activity. It funds everything from developmental aid to anti-tank missiles and Humvees.
But there are serious concerns about whether U.S. monies actually enable more corruption in Ukraine and further enrich bureaucrats and oligarchs. And the efficacy of U.S. aid, military or otherwise, that reaches the intended recipient is still questionable; we’ve seen in other parts of the world how American largess is hard-pressed to create Jeffersonian democracies in areas without a strong democratic tradition. Even more important, U.S. aid to Ukraine—especially of the military variety—comes with real costs and risks to America.
That’s because Ukraine has minimal connection to U.S. security and prosperity. We won the Cold War with Ukraine being part of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact, and Russia today does not pose anything close to the same threat to America the Soviet Union did. Similarly, for all his ambition, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not Joseph Stalin.
But even in this age of globalization, geography matters—a lot. Because Russia and Ukraine share a 1,200-mile border, Ukraine is far more important to Moscow than it ever will be to U.S. security. And despite their conflict, Russia is still Ukraine’s largest trading partner. That means Russia has “escalation dominance”: The U.S. arming Ukraine will almost always result in a Russian response that is even stronger. Therefore, rather than end the conflict or reduce violence for Ukrainians, military aid risks prolonging it.
In this light, Putin’s nationalism can be understood as a terrified reaction to NATO expansion. Like the tsars of old, or the Soviets, he seeks a buffer from a vastly more prosperous and powerful West. U.S. involvement in Ukrainian security is thus perceived as a near-existential threat, just as we would perceive great danger in Russian or Chinese meddling in Canada or Mexico.
Given the distance, even strong supporters of continuing aid to Ukraine generally acknowledge U.S. strategic interests there are limited or at least indirect. The defined U.S. interests, as stated in legislation, amount to vague proclamations about fostering democracy, world order and protecting the territorial integrity of countries on the other side of the world, with little to no direct connection to U.S. security or prosperity.
Many say Ukraine aid is necessary to counter Russia, but in conventional military power, meaning the threat of Russian airpower, tanks and soldiers, Russia is no match for the United States. The Russian defense budget is only about $65 billion, while America’s is $700 billion. Russia’s economy is far smaller than ours as well—it’s essentially Italy with nukes. That makes Russia a regional power at best; while Putin is a thug, he has no chance to rebuild the Soviet empire even if that were his goal.
Only in nuclear war would Russia pose an existential threat to the United States, as Russia holds the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. In fact, the U.S. and Russia combined hold 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
The chance of nuclear war between the two countries is incredibly small, but American policymakers should try to avoid actions that marginally increase the chance of open war with Russia—where policymakers lose control and both countries careen to the brink of nuclear confrontation—rather than foster them, as feeding the conflict in Ukraine does.
We also risk hurting our own credibility by involving ourselves in a conflict in which we have little skin in the game. If Washington continues to escalate, Moscow will call its bluff—and Washington is bluffing, because Russia is much more likely to accept the costs of increased escalation.
To those who ask whether Ukraine desperately needs America’s military help, the answer is not really. Right now, the government in Kiev is in a stalemate with Ukraine’s Russia-backed breakaway eastern regions, populated by ethnic Russians. American weapons won’t change this stalemate, which is based on geography and a broader ethnic divide.
Ukraine actually exports anti-tank munitions, along with a host of other weapons. There’s a risk that the U.S. javelin missiles Ukrainian PresidentVolodymyr Zelenskiy sought in his infamous July phone call with Trump are valued by the Ukranians mostly because this means the U.S. has a stake in the conflict, rather than because of their efficacy on the battlefield.
Fundamentally, Kiev seeks a de-facto security guarantee from American servicemembers and taxpayers. Problem is, this security guarantee risks the dangerous escalation between Washington and Moscow mentioned above, especially when the country provided the guarantee is as corrupt and dysfunctional as is Ukraine.
Instead of military aid, the solution is for America to take a backseat and allow its partners in Europe to help Ukraine in its shift to democracy. Europe has much more cordial relations with Russia than does America, and Europe also has a bigger stake in Ukraine than does the United States.
Meanwhile, America should be tough with Russia when U.S. security and prosperity are at stake but realize that cooperation and a balance of power is required for lasting peace. Giving weapons to a volatile and potentially corrupt government in Kiev is shortsighted.
Along with the constitutional questions Congress and the public are raising, continuing U.S. military aid to Ukraine should not be ignored. It’s a high-risk, high-cost arrangement that could backfire on America.
- Willis L Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA from the University of St. Thomas and works in the financial services industry.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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