Budget hawks in Congress are worried about the $45 billion in aid for Ukraine Congress is poised to approve for 2023.
They’re right. Forty-five billion isn’t enough. Make it $100 billion. Or more. And keep it coming, until the job is done.
The Republicans who will take over the House of Representatives next year have warned there will be no “blank check” for Ukraine once they’re able to block funding. Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, in line to be next Speaker of the House, says that with a $31 trillion national debt, the United States has to be more careful about “wasteful spending.” Democrats who still control Congress may be able to approve that aid by the end of the year, but if not, this could become one of the early spending battles in 2023.
McCarthy needs a better budget adviser, because the United States is getting a phenomenal return on its investment in Ukraine. So far, the United States has committed $40 billion in military and economic aid to Ukraine. The additional $45 billion is meant to last much of next year. Add it up, and two years’ worth of aid to Ukraine equals about 10% of the Pentagon’s annual budget, or 5% of its funding for 2022 and 2023.
“When viewed form a bang-per-buck perspective, U.S. and Western support for Ukraine is an incredibly cost-effective investment,” analyst Timothy Ash wrote recently for the Center for European Policy Analysis. “A Russia continually mired in a war it cannot win is a huge strategic win for the U.S.”
The Pentagon specifically lists Russia and China as the two most important “pacing challenges” the United States has to keep up with in terms of military modernization. Russia is the most belligerent large country in the world and has the fourth-largest defense budget. It’s not the superpower the Soviet Union was, but Russia still threatens American interests in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. It remains an ominous presence on the Pentagon’s radar screen.
If you asked strategic planners what would be a fair price to pay for the rapid dismantlement of Russia’s military capability, the number would probably be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Maybe even more than $1 trillion, given that Russia’s losses in Ukraine will drastically weaken its military for decades. Yet Ukraine is doing the job for a fraction of that, with some crowd-sourcing help from allies in Europe and elsewhere.
Russia has lost one-third to one-half of its operational tank fleet in Ukraine. What’s left seems to be the oldest and most outdated armor in Russia's arsenal. The number of dead and wounded Russian soldiers could number 200,000, roughly the size of the entire force that invaded last February. Russia is mobilizing hundreds of thousands of replacement troops, but those are barely trained amateurs that will scarcely be able to form cohesive fighting units. There’s similar degradation in many other parts of the Russian army, including units once designated the tip of the spear in a possible war with the US-led NATO military alliance. Tough sanctions on the Russian economy will make rebuilding difficult no matter what the outcome of the war.
In terms of diminishing a military rival, aid to Ukraine might be the most efficient use of American taxpayer dollars ever. The war in Iraq, by comparison, cost nearly $2 trillion from 2003 through 2019. Some of that included spending on troops, including $200 billion worth of ongoing care for veterans after they served in Iraq.
U.S. involvement in Afghanistan from 2001 through 2021 was another $2 trillion venture. That includes about $233 billion in ongoing care for veterans.
Is the United States getting a better outcome in Ukraine than it did in Iraq or Afghanistan? Quite likely. Afghanistan is now run by the medieval Taliban, which U.S. and allied forces fought to keep from power for more than a decade. Iraq is somewhat democratic, thanks to the U.S. overthrow of tyrant Saddam Hussein. Yet corruption and political violence are endemic, and of course America’s casus belli—Saddam’s possession of nukes and other mass-death weapons—turned out to be a con.
Since there are no American troops in Ukraine, there’s no bill for veterans’ care. There’s also no question of whether Americans should fight and die for the cause, since Ukrainians are willing to do all the fighting needed to defend their homeland. Given that more than 7,000 American servicemen and women died in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans ought to pay special attention when another country is willing to do the fighting.
Ukraine doesn’t even need to win for the United States and its NATO allies to benefit from the decimation of Russia’s military. Russia’s foes benefit for as long as Russian President Vladimir Putin wastes troops, materiel and money on a disastrous war. Ukrainian victory should be the paramount goal of Ukraine’s allies, for moral, practical and political reasons. But the financial payback on aid accrues whether Ukraine wins or not.
In a rational world, the long-term decline of Russia as a military power might prompt some future reassessment of U.S. defense spending. Alas, that probably won’t happen. There’s always China, and if Russia dwindles so much that it ceases to be a serious conventional threat, America’s military-industrial complex will find other ways to persuade appropriators to keep spending. Russia’s vast nuclear forces, meanwhile, are likely to remain an existential threat warranting the best defenses money can buy.
Still, wars tend to become quagmires that devour national wealth, a perennial lesson the United States relearned this century in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that Putin is feeding resources into the furnace, the United States should help keep the fire as hot as possible.