Pondering the U.S. Role in Support of Ukraine

Blog Post
Thursday, May 19, 2022

This week, the House and Senate gave final approval to a $40.1 billion emergency supplemental appropriations bill for Ukraine. President Biden is expected to sign it. The measure contains essential security and humanitarian assistance for the war-ravaged nation, replenishes depleted U.S. military weapons stockpiles, and includes funding to support American troops deployed to NATO countries earlier this year. This huge tranche of aid follows $13.6 billion previously allocated for Ukraine in the FY 2022 omnibus appropriations bill.

While Americans (including The Concord Coalition) overwhelmingly support President Biden’s approach in Ukraine, U.S. efforts have been entirely financed with debt. With no end to the war in sight, reconstruction costs on the horizon once the war ends, and a U.S. Treasury facing trillion-dollar deficits every year for the foreseeable future, our role in Ukraine raises important questions about the duration and extent of our commitment and how we finance it. 

What is our role? What is our goal?

When economic sanctions failed to prevent Russia’s invasion, the Biden Administration proceeded cautiously, eager to avoid direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed nation, especially since Ukraine was expected to fall within days or weeks. Initial aid packages were modest—$350 million on February 25, $800 million on March 16, $1 billion on March 24—and focused on non-provocative, defense-oriented materiel and humanitarian aid. President Biden’s words matched his deeds saying, “[T]he American people will be steadfast in our support of the people of Ukraine in the face of Putin’s immoral, unethical attacks on civilian populations.  We are united in our abhorrence of Putin’s depraved onslaught, and we’re going to continue to have their back as they fight for their freedom, their democracy, their very survival.  And we’re going to give Ukraine the arms to fight and defend themselves through all the difficult days ahead.” (March 16, 2022). President Biden was clear: This was Ukraine’s fight.

But in the nine weeks since the war began, the role of the United States has morphed into something bigger and more aggressive, in parallel with Ukraine’s success in battle. The current aid package for Ukraine is enormous—it exceeds the annual federal budget for at least seven different cabinet-level agencies—and provides a significant upgrade in weaponry: armored personnel carriers, long-range howitzers, lethal attack drones, and helicopters. 

The Administration's rhetoric has changed too. Words of support for Ukraine remain, but they now hint at broader strategic goals. Speaking after a trip to Kyiv, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” (April 25, 2022). There was even a brief whiff of regime change from President Biden (since walked back): “For God’s sake, [Putin] cannot remain in power.” (March 26). 

At the moment, the U.S. does not have clearly defined objectives for the war in Ukraine. This makes it difficult for Americans to evaluate the billions we are spending—we have no context. “Beat Russia'' is a slogan, not an objective. Administration officials should adopt more precision with respect to Ukraine: what is our role, what is our goal, and how do we get there?

How long will the Ukraine war last?

Russia and NATO nations alike were surprised by Ukraine’s skill in defending its cities and towns against the invading army. What was initially expected to be a brief fight has turned into a long, slogging war of attrition with no clear end in sight. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 10 Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said, "We assess President Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas."

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark A. Milley told the House Armed Services Committee on April 5,  "I do think this is a very protracted conflict, and I think it's measured in years. I don't know about decades, but at least years for sure." He added, "This is a very extended conflict that Russia has initiated and I think that NATO, the United States, Ukraine, and all of the allies and partners supporting Ukraine will be involved in this for quite some time." (CBS News, April 5).

Contributing to this murky forecast is the Russian president himself. Vladimir Putin’s justification for his invasion extends beyond geopolitical strategy and national defense into philosophical,  ideological, and religious motivations. With this mindset, traditional conditions that would normally compel a party to seek peace negotiations (failure to achieve goals, loss of life, scarce resources, economic crisis, political unrest) may be insufficient to bring Putin to the table. 

Knowing this, how long can the U.S. finance a protracted war in Ukraine? With interest rates rising and a dangerously high federal debt, dollars for Ukraine will have to compete with dollars for domestic priorities like COVID resurgence, America’s social safety net, a potential reversal in globalization, needed infrastructure projects, and competition with China. What level of support for Ukraine is sustainable–financially and politically?  

How do we define victory?

In a May 11 Dear Colleague letter to Members of Congress announcing the emergency supplemental appropriations bill for Ukraine, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote, "With this aid package, America sends a resounding message to the world of our unwavering determination to stand with the courageous people of Ukraine until victory is won." 

Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), who traveled with Speaker Pelosi to Kyiv, tweeted “The United States is not interested in stalemates. We are not interested in going back to the status quo. The United States is in this to win it.”

These are inspiring words, but without a clear objective how do we define victory? As Dr. Adam Stuhlberg, Chair of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech University, said on a recent episode of Concord’s Facing the Future,  “At some point, the parties are going to need a more relative understanding of what victory is. How much territorial integrity is Ukraine willing to accept? How much of the cost of securing territory and bolstering these manufactured historical claims is Russia willing to promote? How much of the weakening of Russia is the United States and NATO willing to accept in return for a stable situation on the ground in Ukraine.” Do we know what victory looks like? 

Too many questions, not enough answers

The Biden Administration and Congress cannot rationally or effectively budget for a war with no clear objective, no discernible end, and a nebulous vision of victory. Failure to contain Russian aggression is not an option—it is an existential threat to our European allies—but because this fight is so important to so many, it is also important to budget for it wisely. Ad hoc emergency supplementals financed with debt are no way to successfully prosecute a war, especially now when our debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds 100 percent and interest rates are rising fast. The U.S. needs a plan for this war …and a way to pay for it.