Half-in for Ukraine
No matter how they feel about the war in Ukraine, Americans tend to talk about it as an apocalyptic battle between two sides — one good, the other evil. Either Vladimir Putin is the evil aggressor — a genocidal maniac bent on conquering Ukraine, then perhaps the world; or else NATO — which is to say the United States, which is to say the U.S. foreign policy and military establishment — was the evil pre-aggressor, having gathered much of Eastern Europe under its nuclear umbrella and supported pro-Western elements in Ukraine since at least 2014, all with the goal of isolating and perhaps destroying the Russian Federation.
Yet a recent spate of articles and speeches paint a different picture, at least as far as Washington is concerned. When you dig into the numbers, it seems that — despite the rhetoric from both supporters and critics — neither the Biden administration nor the U.S. military-industrial complex have been treating this war like it is the most important thing in the world.
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One of those pieces was by Adam Tooze in the Financial Times. He wrote:
Over the past 12 months, the US spent 0.21 per cent of GDP on military support for Ukraine. That is slightly less than it spent in an average year on in its ill-fated Afghanistan intervention. In Iraq the spend was three times larger. The Korean war cost the US 13 times as much. Lend-Lease aid for the British empire in the second world war ran to 15 times as much in proportional terms.
By comparison, total U.S. defense spending is about 14% of GDP, or about 66 times as much as spending on arms for Ukraine alone. (And keep in mind, the vast majority of that money goes to contractors and personnel here at home.) Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security combined are about 25% of GDP. So for anyone who tells you that the U.S. government is “prioritiz[ing] intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland” — no, no it isn’t.
And it isn’t only the Americans who aren’t acting as if they are facing World War III either. Tooze writes:
To see the Europeans doing more, you only need to go back to 1991. To support the American-led operation to oust Saddam Hussein from the oilfields of Kuwait, Germany gave three times as much as it is offering to Ukraine in bilateral aid.
A cynic would conclude that the west’s unspoken aim is not just to prevent a Russian victory, but to avoid a decisive Ukrainian success, for fear of escalation by Vladimir Putin’s regime. If this is true, it is jarringly at odds with US and European public rhetoric.
To say the least.
And Tooze isn’t the only one who has noticed the mismatch between rhetoric and firepower. On Feb. 15, Chuck Grassley, the longest-serving Republican senator and top GOP member on the Budget Committee, lambasted the Biden administration in a speech titled “President Biden Should Stop Holding Back and Go All In for Victory in Ukraine.” He said:
Clearly there are factions on both sides of the aisle hesitant about backing a Ukrainian victory. There is also confusion about who in U.S. politics is most behind Ukraine winning the war.
Let’s be clear, the most fervent supporters of victory for Ukraine are Republicans. Meanwhile, the Biden administration gets credit for being all in for Ukraine, when in fact it is more accurate to say that it is at best three-quarters of the way in. And, it has been dragged this far by events, public opinion, and some of our bolder European allies.
Speculation about future Republican support for Ukraine is often framed in terms of Biden’s chances to get the aid he might want, but no one asks why President Biden let $2.2 billion worth of authority passed by Congress to draw down existing weapons for Ukraine expire on September 30th unused.
Grassely went on to echo Tooze’s “cynical” view of American half-measures, arguing, “I see signs that the Biden administration is afraid of what will happen if Ukraine is helped to push Russia back into its own borders.” He followed up the next day with another speech espousing what you might call the maximal-Hitlerian view of Putin, explicitly rejecting the idea of near-term negotiations, and arguing “the risks and costs of not stopping Putin now will be much higher.” (As I write this, Lindsey Graham just took to Twitter, directly likening Putin’s aims to Hilter’s and cautioning us not to “repeat the mistakes of the past.” I assume that was a rebuke to Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, both of whom have called for a drawing down of support for Ukraine in the war.)
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is blocking the administration from sharing evidence of Russian war crimes with the International Criminal Court — despite support for doing so from the State Department, and in contravention of Kamala Harris’ statement last month that the U.S. had determined that Russian forces were committing crimes against humanity. It is widely assumed that the Pentagon is, in effect, protecting Putin out of the recognition that if a precedent is set, U.S. troops (and leaders) could end up in the same dock. (I wrote about the U.S. hypocrisy regarding the ICC shortly after the full invasion last year.) Even so, it suggests a fundamental lack of interest in stopping Putin at all costs: a finding from the ICC could sway some countries sitting on the fence to throw their support to Ukraine, including India and Brazil.
None of this is news to Ukrainians resisting the Russian invasion or their most observant supporters in the states, I realize. But seeing it laid out was somewhat relevatory to me. So what do I take from it? For one, Grassely was right about the confusion: If all I knew was what I got from my daily Twitter feed and commenters on this site, I’d think Biden was leading the charge to direct war with Russia, heedless of the risk of global thermonuclear war, and that a only a core of Republicans was standing in his way. In some ways, it is the reverse.
It also takes some of the air out of the idea that this conflict should be primarily seen as a proxy battle between Russia and “the West.” Or if it is a proxy war, at least, it is not one “the West” is really invested in. Tooze ultimately blames “complacency, a lack of imagination, small-minded budgetary thinking and procedural wrangling” for the gap between “intention and action.” He likens it to the lack of follow-through on sustainable development and global vaccination against COVID-19. (By implication, it would appear he would like to see much more, as he puts it, “decisive western support” for Ukrainian forces.)
For me, for better or worse, I see this through the lens of my most abiding prior: that there is no single mover of world affairs, not even an empire as colossal as the United States. NATO probably shouldn’t have acceded so willingly to former Soviet neighbors and SSRs who wanted to join in the 1990s and 2000s. (In fact, NATO should have disbanded, and nuclear weapons should have been outlawed, in 1991 with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.) But no one put a gun to Putin’s head and said: “you must declare the ‘historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ and launch a war of annexation and regime change.” Nor did anyone have to puppeteer the Ukrainians into resisting that invasion with all the weapons and tools at their disposal.
It would be much more satisfying, and reassuring in a way, to share the view of a Jeffrey Sachs or Chris Hedges — that the only thing standing in the way of peace is American belligerence. Or that, as Sachs recently told Isaac Chotiner, this can all end with “prudence by the United States and withdrawal of troops by Russia with the agreement that NATO will not expand to Ukraine” — as if the first would effect the second, or that the Kremlin would even believe the third.Instead, the reality is far less appealing. It seems the United States and Europe are still fumbling for a response to a war that is not of their making, and whose outcome remains outside of any single party’s control.
For more on the expiration of the $2 billion in draw-down authority, see this article from Defense News in September. Sen. James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said at the time: “This confirms that the administration’s plan is not to give the Ukrainian Armed Forces what they need to win.”
Also withdrawal from where? The Donbas? Crimea? A DMZ along the Russo-Ukrainian border?
Grassley is past having to worry about getting re-elected, and I expect Graham will fall into line when he does have to worry about it, if Putin's war against Ukraine is still a thing at that point. I suspect most Republican voters - not politicians, necessarily, but voters - are inclined to oppose going further "in" for Ukraine, for at least three reasons: (1) many Democrats are inclined to support it, which is now reason enough to oppose it, for many Republicans; (2) Ukraine is way over there on the far side of the world, and it's full of foreigners who don't even speak English - in other words, classic American parochialism, which never really went away; (3) unlike its Soviet predecessors, the Putin regime has never presented itself as leading a movement to take over the world, nor has American propaganda depicted it as such - no "international communist conspiracy" for today's paranoiacs to work themselves up about (or at least not one orchestrated by the Kremlin). It's also worth remembering that before the invasion, some Republicans were vocal admirers of Putin, seeing in him the kind of "strongman" they yearned for in the USA. So I judge that DeSantis has gauged the dominant inclination of the Republican electorate correctly.
A determined propaganda campaign, engaging all the resources of the Murdoch empire, Sinclair, etc., probably could change that, but at present, I see little reason to expect such a campaign.
Putin announced to the world some years ago that war was obsolete. His plans involve using all the stolen riches of his country to subvert, bribe both very poor and very rich to act in His best interests.
Remember what he did /is doing to Syrian population. Initiate refugee crisis to other country's borders is another Putin tactic. The destruction is occurring in Ukraine because we're afraid of his temper tantrums and some powerful industries see money to be made.
Someone in Putin's circle persuaded him ground wars are a quicker means to an end. So we're left with Crosses row upon row. A prosperous and educated population is Putin's greatest enemy.