Help Ukraine Win—or Risk Kicking Off a U.S. Losing Streak

commentary

Mar 18, 2024

National Guardsmen during a routine training exercise in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, February 29, 2024, photo by Ukrinform/Reuters

National Guardsmen during a routine training exercise in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, February 29, 2024

Photo by Ukrinform/Reuters

By Tod D. Wolters and Ann Marie Dailey

This commentary originally appeared on Atlantic Council on March 15, 2024.

More than two years into Russia's war in Ukraine, the once solid wall of U.S. public support for aid to Ukraine has become less vocal. Because of this decrease in discourse supporting Ukraine, a small number of loud detractors is seeking to sway public opinion by asserting that supporting Ukraine isn't in the United States' interest. These voices point to the twenty years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the tragic consequences of the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan to argue that the United States should not become entangled in another “forever war,” and that instead it should focus on its southern border. These arguments are built on the false sense that U.S. influence abroad, whether it starts or stops, is divorced from any noticeable consequence for most Americans. However, continued assistance to Ukraine is critical if the United States is to retain its position as the world's indispensable nation and the many benefits Americans enjoy as a result. Failing to support Ukraine now might kick off an American losing streak that could take decades to overcome.

First, Ukraine is not Afghanistan. No U.S. troops are fighting in Ukraine, whereas tens of thousands of U.S. troops invaded Afghanistan to fight an insurgency in a mountainous, landlocked, and poor nation. In contrast, Ukraine borders and aspires to join NATO and the European Union. It has an educated population (with a nearly 100 percent adult literacy rate), and it is connected to the global economy as one of the world's largest agricultural exporters. Though many Afghans ultimately supported the United States, that support never materialized into the national and political coherence that is already seen among Ukrainians fighting for their right to exist as a democratic nation. Ukraine is protecting its territory from a hostile invasion by Russia—an autocratic nation that supports and is supported by dictators in Syria, Iran, and North Korea.

Failing to support Ukraine now might kick off an American losing streak that could take decades to overcome.

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Second, while the war has been in an apparent stalemate in recent months, all but the briefest of wars play out in phases. Often, one of the causes of a stalemate is that both sides have run low enough on fresh troops and equipment that they need to reequip and train personnel before they are capable of further large-scale operations. In this sense, the current period of “stalemate” in Ukraine should be seen not as the end-state, but as a finite period to focus on rearming, reequipping, and—importantly—reassessing one's theory of victory. In this sense, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's replacement earlier this year of Valery Zaluzhny with Oleksandr Syrsky as the head of Ukraine's armed forces looks less like an indication that Ukraine is flailing, and more like a prudent move to set the foundation for a new approach to victory.

The consequences of this war will echo well beyond Europe. Supporting a Ukrainian victory would reassert U.S. global preeminence for around 5 percent of the annual U.S. defense budget, and without the cost of American lives. Continued U.S. global leadership would help shape international issues such as governance of space, artificial intelligence, terrorism, and global migration patterns in the United States' favor. Russia would be militarily defeated by a reinvigorated American defense industrial base and China would likely reconsider the ability and willingness of the United States to exert its will around the globe, including in defense of Taiwan.

If, however, the United States fails to support Ukraine, expect the opposite. An emboldened Russia is likely to expand its current policy of sowing global discord. Already it has muscled into countries in Africa in hope of capturing raw materials, supported Iranian-backed terrorists in the Middle East that threaten global shipping, and conducted anti-U.S. information and covert operations in Central and South America. Europe would chart a more independent foreign policy and seek to decrease its reliance on the U.S. defense industry and military cooperation. Some may think this is a positive, but the U.S. defense industrial base relies on both U.S. military sales and on sales to allies in NATO and elsewhere. Furthermore, the United States' ability to defend its global interests—the same interests that give Americans their extraordinary standard of living—would be diminished by nations unwilling to cooperate with an unreliable partner.

Which brings us back to Ukraine. Some argue that the United States must first secure its own borders before supporting Ukraine, but that falsely assumes that the two issues are mutually exclusive or linked. It is possible to both support Ukraine and secure U.S. borders; one does not preclude the other. Others say that Europe should be paying to support Ukraine, which it already is. More than a dozen European nations are spending more than the United States as a share of their gross domestic product, and the European Union as an institution is outspending the United States in terms of total commitments. Finally, some argue that funding Ukraine diverts funds for U.S. capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. This ignores two critical facts: First, most of the funding “for Ukraine” actually goes to support the U.S. defense industrial base. Second, all of the United States' plans for United States Indo-Pacific Command involve an assumption of some support from European allies. U.S. leaders and policymakers need to ask themselves how realistic that assumption is if they do not support those allies today.

Supporting Ukraine isn't charity. It is a way for the United States to reassert itself at a time when its influence is faltering.

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Supporting Ukraine isn't charity. It is a way for the United States to reassert itself at a time when its influence is faltering. It is a golden opportunity to cement the support of U.S. allies and partners—its greatest advantage over Russia and China. Support to Ukraine isn't just a good deed, it's also a good deal. From January 2022 to January 2024, the United States gave roughly $46 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. From 1941 to 1945, the United States sent the current equivalent of $831 billion to allies fighting fascist regimes in the Atlantic and Pacific and ultimately had to sacrifice 416,000 American men and women to the cause of freedom. Ukraine can still win without U.S. troops.

In seventy five years, the only time NATO has invoked its collective defense protocol was to defend the United States after 9/11. And NATO allies sent their troops thousands of miles away to fight an insurgency with the United States. Now, it is Europe that needs help from the United States. Russia has invaded a European nation in what NATO allies see as the greatest security threat to Europe since the Nazis. If the United States turns its back on Ukraine now, it would be abandoning its allies in their time of need. It would be kicking off an American losing streak that could last decades—if not longer.


General Tod D. Wolters (Ret.) is a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Ann Marie Dailey is a nonresident senior fellow at the Transatlantic Security Initiative of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a policy researcher at RAND.

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