U.S. military assistance to Ukraine has been good — but not good enough. In part, that’s because of a conceptual error we keep making. We keep thinking it’s their war. We should understand that this is our war — and act accordingly.
The best way to keep the peace is to help Ukraine throw back the Russian invaders with devastating losses. That would send a powerful message not only to Putin but also to every tinhorn dictator on the planet: Don’t mess with the West. But that’s not what we are doing. We are providing the Ukrainians with just enough weaponry to avoid defeat — but not enough to win. The Ukrainians are outgunned 10 to 1 in artillery in the critical battle being fought in the eastern Donbas region. That’s unacceptable.
We would not be so stingy if U.S. troops were on the front lines. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has spent more than $3 trillion on the war on terror, which encompassed the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. (That doesn’t count trillions more for veterans’ care and homeland defense.) That’s an average of $12 billion every month for almost 21 years.
By comparison, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, the United States has committed only $5.6 billion in security assistance, with the latest tranche of $1 billion announced last week. That’s an awful lot of money if measured by foreign aid, but it’s a pittance compared to what we spend on our own wars. If this had been a U.S. conflict, we might have spent $48 billion or more since February.
That’s nearly an order of magnitude difference, which helps explain why our aid packages fall so short of what the Ukrainians are requesting. A top aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky says that to achieve “heavy weapons parity” with the invaders, Ukraine needs 1,000 155mm howitzers, 300 multiple-launch rocket systems, 500 tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles and 1,000 drones. The United States has so far pledged 126 155mm howitzers, four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, 200 armored personnel vehicles and 121 Phoenix Ghost drones. Our allies have made some critical contributions of their own but, taken together, it’s not enough.
The United States has entirely failed to provide any tanks or aircraft. Not only has the Biden administration not sent F-16 fighter jets or A-10 ground-attack aircraft, it also refused to facilitate a transfer of MiG-29 fighter jets from Poland. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula says that the United States has more than 200 MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones in storage that could be shipped to Ukraine. Armed with Hellfire missiles, these drones could help turn the tide in Donbas. But the Biden administration so far hasn’t sent a single Gray Eagle.
“We are supporting the Ukrainian military as rapidly as humanly possible,” says Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That’s simply not true. You can bet all the cryptocurrency in the world that if the United States were losing upward of 100 soldiers a day in combat (losses we haven’t sustained since World War II), we would be throwing a lot more air power, armor and artillery into the battle. We wouldn’t be telling our troops, “Tough luck. Do the best you can.” But that’s essentially what we are telling the Ukrainians. Do Ukrainian lives matter less than American lives? They shouldn’t.
The Biden administration and its defenders have many excuses for not doing more. We don’t want to be drawn into a war with Russia. The situation isn’t as critical as the Ukrainians claim. They can’t absorb too much equipment too quickly. The Russians will simply destroy or capture our systems. The United States has limited stockpiles. It takes time to move heavy weapons and set up supply lines for them. While we can’t match the Russians in quantity, our equipment is of higher quality — so we don’t need to deliver it in the numbers the Ukrainians want. And so on.
Most of these explanations are valid, but none is really adequate to explain our failure to do more. Policymakers should keep asking themselves, “What would we do if GIs were dying in Donbas?” and act accordingly. That doesn’t mean that we should directly attack Russia. It does mean that we should be providing Ukraine with the resources to win the war that Russia is waging against the entire West.