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The Case Against Western Military Assistance to Ukraine
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During the surprise visit that he made to Kiev, Biden declared that he came because “it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about US support for Ukraine in the war” and to show America’s “unwavering support for the nation’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, especially in recent weeks, several Western officials have publicly their country’s and the West’s commitment to Ukraine’s defense in very strong terms.
The view that it’s in the US and more generally in the West’s interest to commit to Ukraine in such a forceful way is largely uncontroversial among commentators. People who disagree with that view are widely demonized for acquiescing to Putin’s war of aggression and painted as “appeasers”. In this essay, I argue that most arguments people make to support this view are unpersuasive, misconstrue the nature of the West’s interests and deny the trade-offs involved in a commitment to defend Ukraine.
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It’s extremely unlikely that, had the West not helped Ukraine, Russia would have attacked a NATO member next
The most popular argument in favor of a Western commitment to Ukraine’s defense may be that, if Ukraine is defeated, Russia will not stop there but will attack NATO’s eastern flank. For instance, Anne Applebaum recently wrote that, had the West not helped Ukraine, NATO would now be forced to prepare for “the inevitable invasion of Warsaw, Vilnius, or Berlin”. However, although this has become a common talking point, it’s a preposterous claim.
Russia has almost nothing to win and everything to lose by attacking the Baltics. One might retort that it was also crazy to invade Ukraine, yet Russia still did it, but this would be to miss the fundamental differences between Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and a hypothetical decision to invade the Baltics.
Invading a NATO member would be a mistake orders of magnitude worse and even the Russians are not crazy enough not to realize that. Nobody ever argued that it was inconceivable that Russia might invade Ukraine, even though most people didn’t believe Putin would do it now and on such a scale. On the contrary, this possibility was one of the main reasons why people like me argued that NATO should tread carefully on this issue, because Ukraine is and always was special for the Russians.
It’s not just that unlike Ukraine the Baltics are part of NATO and that invading them would require making the bet that other members of the Alliance would not honor their treaty commitment to defend them, at the risk of having to take on the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world or even face literal annihilation if they did, but also how much more strongly members of the Russian elite feel about Ukraine than the Baltics.
The Russian elites are convinced that, unless Ukraine is subordinated to Moscow in some fashion, Russia can’t be a great power, whereas most of them have long accepted that the Baltics are long gone and aren’t coming back, but they don’t think that it precludes a great power status for Russia.
Nor are they alone in recognizing that Ukraine is special, though not always for the same reason as them. Zbigniew Brzezinski famously observed in The Grand Chessboard that whether Ukraine succeeded in leaving Moscow’s orbit would determine if Russia would cease to be an empire and become a nation-state.
Russia has been trying since the dissolution of the Soviet Union to bring Ukraine into some kind of economic union, whereas similar projects for the Baltics were almost immediately abandoned, not just because unlike Ukraine they moved decidedly toward the West right after their independence but also because they have a tiny population and aren’t essential for Russia’s ambitions.
These geopolitical considerations are intertwined with more emotional factors. There is a depth of feeling about Ukraine in the Russian elite that is unlike anything they feel about the Baltics. Nobody in Russia thinks that the Balts and the Russians are really the same people, whereas the view that the Ukrainians and the Russians are one and the same people is widespread.
The idea that if Ukraine was defeated it would immediately turn to the Baltics and prepare to invade them is ludicrous and the mere fact that it can be publicly entertained without fear of ridicule speaks volumes about the state of the public debate on everything related to Russia.
Sadly, many people who know this doesn’t make sense are now afraid to say so, because they know that if they do they will get bullied by thousands of clueless morons on social media who will make sarcastic comments about how they also didn’t think Russia would invade Ukraine and it still happened.
For instance, as recently as 2018, Michael Kofman was ridiculing that notion:
Kofman compared American worries about a Russian invasion of the Baltics to equally far-fetched Russian worries about an American move into Belarus. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I’ve never heard anyone in Washington say: ‘Wow, Belarus. That’s real prime real estate. We should get that.’ By the same token, the Russians are amazed that we think they want to take the Baltics. They just find it incredible. They’re going to go into the Baltics — which they have no use for — and take on the world’s pre-eminent military alliance? It’s crazy.”
I doubt he’d say that publicly today, but that’s not because it’s not true anymore.
The notion that Russia might also invade Poland or even Germany, I have even heard people warn that unless Ukraine prevails Paris may be at risk, is even more ridiculous. NATO members have a combined GDP that is almost 20 times larger than Russia’s GDP and they outspend Moscow on defense by a factor of more than 12.
Even if you don’t count the US, the EU and the UK still have a combined GDP almost 10 times larger than Russia’s GDP, a population more than 3 times larger and outspend it on defense by a factor of more than 3. Of course, GDP and military spending are imperfect proxies of military power (Russia used to get more bang for its bucks, though with sanctions this is probably no longer true), but the notion that Russia, which can’t even defeat Ukraine, might undertake to conquer the rest of Europe is so ludicrous that in a healthy intellectual environment making such a claim would be discrediting.
People make this argument because they think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was part of a more general, well thought-out expansionist plan that aims to recreate the Russian empire or the Soviet Union, but I think that’s a fundamental and unfortunately widespread misunderstanding of the causes of the war.
There is no evidence that Putin’s decision to launch the invasion was part of such a plan and plenty of evidence that it arose from considerations specific to Ukraine and the role that, for people in the Russian foreign policy establishment, this country is supposed to play for Russia’s security and its ambition of becoming one of the centers of global power in the multipolar world they want to usher in.
What happened is that Putin made a number of decisions in 2014 that were driven by a combination of fear and opportunism without thinking about the consequences, then spent the next 8 years trying to thread the needle between dealing with those consequences on terms that were acceptable to him without having to go to war and break with the West, until he finally decided that it couldn’t be done and invaded.
It’s a very complicated story, which I don’t think has been told satisfactorily yet, though Anna Arutunyan’s recent book presents much of the evidence on the immediate causes of the war. The bottom line is that there is no grand strategy, the invasion of Ukraine isn’t part of a long-term plan to subjugate Europe, it’s just the result of one improvisation after another.
Even if Putin really had the ambitions people ascribe to him and the invasion of Ukraine were really part of a plan to reconstitute the Russian empire, had the West not intervened to prevent Ukraine’s defeat, he probably still wouldn’t have been in a position to try to execute such a plan.
Indeed, while the West’s military assistance to Ukraine is crucial, it’s unclear that it was decisive until the summer of last year when Ukraine was running out of ammunition. In particular, it’s likely that Ukraine would still have managed to defeat Russia’s assault on Kiev even if the West hadn’t provided assistance, because the assistance they provided before the summer was limited and most of it only made it after the Russian push toward Kiev had already stalled.
In any case, what seems clear is that, even if the West had not helped Ukraine, Russia would still have suffered significant losses and that its military capabilities would still have been considerably degraded. Despite what people like Applebaum assume, we don’t know exactly what Putin had planned for Ukraine after the invasion, but in any plausible scenario it would have been extremely costly to Russia and would have kept it plenty busy and given it other things to worry about than preparing the conquest of Europe, which again it has neither the intention nor the means to undertake anyway.
Indeed, even on the plausible assumption that Putin intended to annex parts of Ukraine and turn the rest of the country into a Ukrainian rump state that would be a Russian satellite, it’s hard to see how this adventure could not have been extremely costly for Russia and turned into a resource black hole for years if not decades.
If the West had not provided military assistance to Kiev, the Ukrainian armed forces would eventually have become unable to continue to function as a conventional force its convention, if only because it would have run out of ammunition. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Ukraine would have stopped fighting, only that the conventional phase of the war would have stopped.
If Ukraine had refused to make a deal and decided to keep fighting anyway, it would have turned into an asymmetric war, which could have lasted for years and would still have consumed large amounts of Russian blood and money. The Chechen Wars illustrate how costly such a war can be and, compared to Ukraine, Chechnya is tiny and the Chechens didn’t have nearly as much resources to wage such a war.
Even if the Ukrainian government had eventually surrendered, allowing Russia to annex part of its territory and create a rump Ukrainian state in the rest, insurgents could nevertheless have kept fighting in both that rump state and the annexed regions for a long time. Not only would the country have been awash with weapons, but the US and its allies would undoubtedly have covertly armed and trained the insurgents, as they did in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979.
Let’s assume that not only the Ukrainian government would have surrendered, but that after that decision there would have been no insurgency. It still would have resulted in a massive headache for Russia. Most Ukrainians clearly have no desire to be part of Russia, even in the East and South of Ukraine, so in the regions that Russia would have annexed it would have faced chronic social and political unrest.
The situation would probably have been similar to what Serbia had to deal with in Kosovo after 1981, when mass protests demanding that the region be granted the status of republic within the Yugoslav federation started, which led to chronic social unrest with the occasional terrorist attack. Even before the situation degenerated into a full-blown armed insurgency, it was extremely costly for Serbia and required widespread repression, yet Kosovo was very small compared to Ukraine or even the parts that Putin would probably have annexed.
As for the rest of Ukraine, which in that scenario Russia would have turned into a rump state with a government beholden to Moscow, it’s unclear exactly what the mechanism to ensure that it would have stayed geopolitically aligned could have been short of indefinitely leaving a large amount of troops in the country, which would also have been very costly.
Indeed, unless Russia had left a large contingent in that rump state to protect the government, there is no reason to think it wouldn’t have been overthrown a few years later by the population, especially since the rump state in question would presumably have been created in the West and Center of Ukraine where Ukrainian nationalism was always strongest.
However, if the Russians had been forced to leave a large amount of troops in the Ukrainian rump state to keep the population from overthrowing their puppet government, the situation in that rump state wouldn’t have been that different than in the parts that would have been annexed by Russia and would also have also imposed a massive cost on Russia.
In fact, precisely because the population in this rump state would have been so anti-Russian, I even think there is even a good chance that Putin’s puppet government would eventually have tried to shake off the Russian yoke to avoid the fate of Yanukovych or even something much worse, in which case Russia would have had to launch another invasion or accept the existence of a pro-West Ukrainian state on its doorstep, which is precisely what it was trying to avoid.
People talk as if invading a country of 44 million larger than France and annexing large swathes of it were a walk in the park, but this is very far from being true. The US disposed of the Iraqi armed forces quickly in 2003, but it didn’t prevent it from having to pay a heavy price in blood and money after that. Now, Iraq is arguably a more fertile ground than Ukraine for a large-scale insurgency, but on the other hand the US wasn’t trying to annex part of it and turn the rest into a US satellite.
This is a point I had already made just before the invasion. At the time, I assumed that Russia would be able to defeat the Ukrainian armed forces (which to be fair it probably would have eventually if the West hadn’t provided military assistance to Ukraine, though it would have taken much longer than I and most people assumed), but I thought this would be the easy part and that it would just have been the beginning of Russia’s troubles.
On this point, nothing that has happened since then has given me any reason to think that I was wrong, quite the contrary. Dealing with social unrest and widespread civil disobedience, to say nothing of a large-scale armed insurgency, is very difficult and costly. So is keeping a puppet government in place in a country where almost everyone hates you.
It’s useful for perspective to keep in mind that even the Soviet Union under Stalin, which could resort to means of repression that are not available to Putin, was never able to completely extinguish Ukrainian nationalism and that it took it years to completely defeat the armed insurgency that started during WWII. Even in the absence of Western military assistance to Ukraine, Russia’s invasion would have been a disaster.
Before the war, one might have doubted how committed to preserving their distinctiveness the Ukrainians were (one can never know for sure how people will react until they are put to the test), but after one week it was already clear that Putin’s invasion had been premised on badly flawed assumptions and that it wouldn’t end well regardless of what the West did.
Paradoxically, despite being the most anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian people in the West, the people who argue that unless the US and its allies provide military assistance to Ukraine they will later have to fight Russia themselves overestimate the Russians and underestimate the Ukrainians.
Western military assistance to Ukraine makes proliferation more, not less, likely
Another commonly made argument in favor of Western military assistance to Ukraine is related to the deterrence argument I will criticize later, but it’s more specific and deserves to be discussed separately.
According to this argument, if the West doesn’t respond to Russia’s invasion and allows it to defeat Ukraine, non-nuclear states will conclude that acquiring nuclear weapons can shield them from punishment for violating international law and some of them will start a military nuclear program.
For instance, Timothy Snyder argued that if the West gives in to Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling and makes concessions to Russia to reduce the risk of a nuclear escalation, it would result in “global nuclear proliferation”. Instead, the West should continue to support Ukraine until it defeats Russia, so non-nuclear states understand that acquiring nuclear weapons would not protect them from the consequences of violating international law.
However, as Nicholas Miller explained, this argument overlooks the complexity of nuclear decision-making and is not supported by the historical record. The kind of proliferation cascade predicted by that argument has not happened in the past and there is every reason it wouldn’t happen today either if the West stopped providing military assistance to Ukraine.
First, this argument grossly underestimates the difficulty of developing nuclear weapons, which is not something that many states can easily do even if they set out to do it. A military nuclear program is extremely expensive and requires scientific and technical expertise that relatively few states have.
In addition to these difficulties, which are internal in nature and have to do with the limited state capacity of would-be proliferators, external obstacles also make the development of nuclear weapons difficult. In particular, a very effective multilateral export control regime has been established in 1974 to restrict the export of materials, equipment and technology that can be used to develop nuclear weapons, which has made that significantly more difficult.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has been signed by every country in the world except four (Israel, India, Pakistan and South Sudan) and that only one state has ever left (North Korea), also created a verification system relying on inspections that, while hardly perfect, nevertheless makes it more difficult to develop nuclear weapons.
Thus, even if a state decides to develop nuclear weapons, it’s hardly obvious that it will succeed. For instance, Libya started a military nuclear program under Gaddafi that was ended in 2003 after the regime made a deal with the US and the UK, but the program was a failure and it’s doubtful that it would have succeeded anyway.
External factors don’t just affect the difficulty of successfully developing nuclear programs, but also make it more likely, thus reducing the probability that a state will undertake to develop nuclear weapons. Once it is discovered that a state has done so, it’s put under intense pressure by the international community to stop, which uses economic sanctions or even the threat of force.
In part because of those constraints, the vast majority of non-nuclear states have found it more sensible not to develop nuclear weapons, but to rely on the protection of nuclear states or conventional forces to deter aggression. Several of them, which have the economic and technological wherewithal to develop nuclear weapons (such as Japan, Germany or Sweden), have also developed strong norms against nuclear weapons.
Thus, the notion that, unless the West provides military assistance to Ukraine and Russia is defeated, non-nuclear states will develop nuclear weapons is preposterous. There is a reason why, although proliferation cascades have been predicted on numerous occasions in the past, they have never materialized. This is even less likely to happen now than in the past, because the non-proliferation regime has been considerably strengthened over time.
One could as well argue that Western military assistance to Ukraine, by showing how far the West is willing to go to punish its adversaries for their transgressions, could actually convince some of them to start a nuclear program because they want some insurance in case they decide to do something the West doesn’t like. Indeed, while the West has been providing a lot of military assistance to Ukraine, everybody understands that Russia’s nuclear deterrent nevertheless restrains Western policy.
I don’t really buy this argument for similar reasons that I don’t like the argument about proliferation made by supporters of Western military assistance to Ukraine, but it’s certainly no worse. The truth is that how the West responds to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will almost certainly have no impact one way or another on the nuclear intentions of other countries.
However, it doesn’t follow that it will have no impact on proliferation, on the contrary. Indeed, the non-proliferation agenda crucially depends on collaboration with Russia (because the multilateral export regime, the economic sanctions, etc. would be much less effective without Moscow’s participation due to Russia’s crucial role in the world’s nuclear cycle), but that collaboration is unlikely to continue or be as effective if the relations between the West and Russia continue to go downhill.
In the worst case scenario, Russia could even help Iran get the bomb or at least close its eyes on Iran’s nuclear problem in exchange for help to wage the war in Ukraine, which also wouldn’t be in the West’s interest. As Hanna Notte recently pointed out, the continuation of the war certainly has made Russia both less willing and able to refrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
This is a much more concrete threat than the confused and far-fetched argument supporters of Western military assistance to Ukraine make about proliferation. Historically, external help was a major factor in proliferation, so this would hardly be unprecedented. Thus, not only will providing military assistance to Ukraine not decrease the probability of proliferation, but exactly the opposite is true.
Finally, I’m only arguing against Western military assistance to Ukraine, not against economic sanctions. Not providing military assistance to Ukraine is not the same thing as not doing anything to punish Russia. Thus, even if providing military assistance to Ukraine did not increase rather than decrease the risk of proliferation, this argument would not be nearly as strong as his proponents claim.
Providing military assistance to Ukraine is not cheap once you take into account the indirect costs
Another popular argument is that, by providing Ukraine with military assistance, the US and its allies are getting rid of a rival for cheap. People who make that argument claim that, by spending only a small fraction of their military spending to help Ukraine, the West is able to destroy Russia’s military potential or at least reduce its ability to harm Western interests, but this argument is extremely confused.
First, if the US and its allies can really get rid of a rival for a few billion dollars, then it wasn’t much of a rival to begin with. In fact, Russia was never a serious rival of the West, so even if helping Ukraine was going to reduce its ability to harm Western interests this argument would still misrepresent the achievement.
Russia has a GDP that is about the same as Canada’s in nominal terms and Germany’s in purchasing power parity. It would take a lot more than that to make it a rival of the US and its allies. While people have been hyping the so-called “Russian threat”, this never made any sense given Russia’s actual capabilities, something that should be even clearer now that we have seen it struggle against Ukraine.
The comparison between the cost of assistance to Ukraine and the GDP or defense budget of the US that people make is also misleading. In order to explain why though, it’s useful to briefly go over how the US assistance to Ukraine works, because it’s a bit complicated and people are confused about it.
The US provides military assistance to Ukraine through a variety of different programs, but most of it consists in equipment that is directly taken from inventories to be delivered quickly or money that Ukraine can use to procure items from industry that will be delivered later, while the rest consists in training and support for the most part.
The president has the authority to order that equipment be taken directly from inventories to provide military assistance to foreign countries in the limit of a certain amount set by Congress. Putting aside the cost of refurbishment and transport, this doesn’t require that money be appropriated since the equipment has already been paid for, but most of it has to be replaced, which requires appropriations by Congress. Money provided to Ukraine to order equipment on the market also has to be appropriated.
For the fiscal years 2022 and 2023, Congress has already passed 4 supplemental funding packages, which appropriated more than $113 billion. However, only some of that money has been appropriated to finance military assistance (a bit more than half), while the rest is for economic and humanitarian assistance. Moreover, only some of the money appropriated to provide military assistance has been used, so the amount of money that has actually been obligated to provide military assistance to Ukraine is much less than $113 billion.
If you add the value of the equipment that has been taken from inventories and committed to Ukraine and add the amount of money that has been obligated to procure equipment for Ukraine from industry so far, which leaves out the cost of Department of Defense operations related to military assistance to Ukraine and military assistance that is provided by the State Department, it comes to about $20 billion for the fiscal years 2022 and 2023.
This amount will increase later has more of the money that has already been appropriated to provide military assistance to Ukraine is used and more appropriations are voted by Congress. It’s much less that people often claim because they confuse the assistance that has already been authorized by Congress, either by setting the cap on the Presidential Drawdown Authority or through supplemental appropriations (which again are not limited to military assistance), with the amount of military assistance that has actually been provided so far.
This amount represents about 2.8% of total defense outlays during the last fiscal year, which is indeed small, but this figure does not accurately reflect the impact that military assistance to Ukraine has on US military preparedness for several reasons.
First, since military assistance to Ukraine mostly consists in equipment drawn from inventories that must be replaced or money for Ukraine to procure equipment directly from industry, it makes more sense to compare it to the part of the defense budget that is used for procurement.
However, only a relatively small fraction of US defense outlays is devoted to procurement (17% in 2022), while the rest is used for salaries, research and development, operation and maintenance, etc. Therefore, the military assistance provided to Ukraine represented 16.6% of the amount spent on procurement by the Department of Defense, which is not so small and will probably have to grow significantly if Ukraine is to have a chance of defeating Russia.
But more importantly, looking at the issue from a purely budgetary point of view misses the real impact that military assistance to Ukraine has on US military preparedness. After all, the money used for the US military assistance to Ukraine isn’t taken from the defense budget since it’s funded by supplementary appropriations, so it doesn’t take any funding away from the Department of Defense and is even used to surreptitiously increase its regular budget.
The real problem is that military assistance to Ukraine is emptying US inventories very quickly and that the industry can’t keep up, so even if the Pentagon gets money to replace the stuff that was taken from inventories to send it to Ukraine and the money that is given to Ukraine to procure equipment from industry doesn’t come from the regular defense budget, that’s not much of a consolation because money doesn’t magically get you more stuff to replenish your inventories and restore your capabilities. The stuff in question that is purchased with that money has to be made first.
In other words, although it doesn’t cost that much money (at least for now), military assistance to Ukraine is crowding out procurement for the US military by putting the military industry under a lot of strain. For several critical systems, at the current rate of production, it will take several years to replenish the US military inventories that were emptied to send military assistance to Ukraine and the war has only started a year ago.
Plans are under way to increase production capacities, but this will require funding beyond what has been appropriated by Congress to finance military assistance to Ukraine and more importantly it will take time. In the meantime, US military preparedness will be reduced and as a result it will be less able to deal with threats in other parts of the world, such as in the Indo-Pacific region where it tries to deter China.
For instance, while the Pentagon recently announced a plan to increase the production of 155mm shells (as well as munitions for other systems), this is currently expected to take from 12 to 18 months for 155mm shells and even longer for other types of ammunition.
Even when this expansion of capacity has been completed, production will not be sufficient to cover Ukraine’s consumption during the first year of the war, so although US allies will also increase their production it will be a while before US inventories are replenished if, as seems likely, the war goes into 2024 or beyond and the US keeps providing military assistance to Ukraine.
This is true even if Ukraine’s consumption goes down, which I have argued previously is likely, but it could get worse in the long-run if the war continues to escalate, because in that case the US and its allies will have to increase their deliveries to Ukraine. This will further delay the replenishment of their inventories and require even more investments to increase production capacities.
It will be even more problematic if, as seems increasingly likely, the US starts providing new capabilities to Ukraine, such as long-range missiles and jet fighters with ammunition, because in that case military assistance to Ukraine will affect a broader range of capabilities and therefore impact US military preparedness even more.
The more general point here is that, in addition to the direct cost it has on the budget, military assistance to Ukraine also has a significant indirect cost on military preparedness. Now that Washington has committed to Ukraine’s defense, not only is there no saying how much money it will cost in the end, but there is also no saying for how long and how much this commitment will keep inventories low and put US military production under strain.
Indeed, the people who claim that military assistance to Ukraine is cheap also forget that Russia hasn’t been defeated yet and that it will have to continue for a while before this happens (assuming we can actually win a war by proxy against Russia in Ukraine, which is hardly obvious), so the cost will likely increase significantly by the time it’s done. As they say, it ain't over till the fat lady sings.
To a large extent, the same thing is true for other NATO members, which has led military officials in several Western countries to express their concern about the impact of the war on their inventories. One might argue that Russia is the only country against which they might need those inventories, so that it’s not a problem to empty them for Ukraine.
However, not only does this rest on the assumption that it will not lead to a massive surge of Russia’s military spending in the long-run (which is unlikely but can’t be totally excluded), because otherwise they’ll face a Russia armed to the teeth in a few years while their inventories will be depleted and it will force them to increase their defense spending far in excess of what they’re already planning (bringing about the very kind of situation military assistance to Ukraine was supposed to prevent), but realistically if the US is involved in a major war the rest of NATO won’t be able to stay on the sidelines and will at the minimum have to provide support.
Of course, the indirect effect that military assistance to Ukraine has on the West’s military preparedness will only matter if the US is involved in a major war in this decade, which seems very unlikely. Nevertheless, this still can’t be ruled out entirely, especially for a country such as the US with many commitments all over the world.
At the beginning of 1990, nobody expected that the US would have to move hundreds of thousands of troops and huge amount of equipment in Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom and secure the West’s supply of oil after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, yet it still happened.
Thus, although it’s very unlikely to matter in the end, it’s still a significant risk and I don’t see why the US and its allies should take it unless it’s in their interest to provide military assistance to Ukraine, but as this essay argues that is not the case and the arguments to the contrary are unconvincing.
Moreover, the indirect costs of providing military assistance to Ukraine are not limited to the effect it has on the West’s military preparedness, far from it. Not only does providing military assistance to Ukraine, by prolonging the conventional phase of the war, increases the amount of economic assistance to Ukraine that we’ll have to provide both during and after the war, but getting on the wrong side of Russia is extremely costly.
If we take into account the economic aid, the total amount of money spent by the West to support Ukraine during the war may not be that large yet, but it will reach hundreds of billions of dollars before it’s over in the best case scenario and may well exceed a trillion if the war drags on for long enough and continues to escalate. But perhaps more importantly, providing military assistance to Ukraine has already had a huge indirect economic cost.
This is less true for the US, which is largely insulated from the economic consequences of the war, but it’s very different in Europe where the economic war with Russia and in particular the reduction of Russian gas deliveries is largely responsible for the European energy crisis.
The cost of policies to shield households and businesses from rising energy costs has already reached almost 800 billion euros and, taking into account the negative impact of the crisis on economic growth, the cost for Europe will almost certainly exceed one trillion euros by the time the war is over and may well cost far more than that in the end.
While Russia may have stopped gas deliveries to the EU even if European countries had not provided military assistance to Ukraine, in light of the loss of revenue this decision has caused for Moscow, it seems pretty unlikely as long as the EU had not continued to ratchet up economic sanctions after the invasion.
By prolonging the conventional phase of the war, military assistance to Ukraine will also increase the amount of destruction, hence the size of the bill that Western countries will have to foot to rebuild the country after the war. The cost was already estimated by the World Bank at $500-$600 billion after 9 months of war and it will obviously rise as the war drags on.
Furthermore, while helping Ukraine and prolonging the war is probably going to degrade the Russian military capabilities significantly and therefore also Russia’s ability to harm the West’s interests (unless it ends up causing a massive increase of its military spending and the Russian military becomes a much more capable force by the end of the war, which again is unlikely but can’t be ruled out entirely), it will definitely increase its willingness to do so.
Russia may not be a serious rival for the US and its allies, as I noted above, it nevertheless has considerable spoiling power in virtue of its size, geography, military technology, permanent seat at the UN Security Council, etc. The people who make that argument seem to think that Russia is already as bad as it can be, but I’m afraid they’re going to realize how wrong they are about that.
Russia has actually collaborated with the US and its allies on a number of issues since the end of the Cold War and, if it stops because we are supporting Ukraine, they are going to feel the difference. Unfortunately, so will the rest of us, who didn’t want to commit to Ukraine’s defense so strongly.
For instance, in order to keep good relations with the West, Russia has traditionally refrained from selling its most advanced weapon systems to adversaries of the US and its allies. If the Russians start selling advanced weapon systems, such as their air defense systems (which have proven very effective in Ukrainian hands to deny air superiority to Russia), left and right it could seriously limit the West’s options or make them more costly in future crises.
Moreover, helping Ukraine could even endanger the non-proliferation agenda, which critically relies on cooperation with Russia. What is left of the arms control regime between the US and Russia is already falling apart as a result of the West’s support to Ukraine. If thing continue to escalate, it’s hard to see how it could be revived anytime soon, which in turn will make the emergence of a multilateral arms control regime that would also include China and other nuclear powers even more elusive.
This alone represents a huge cost, not only for the West, but for the entire world. Indeed, while people tend to forget it, mutual assured destruction did not end with the Cold War. Nuclear weapons will remain a danger to civilization as long as countries will have large nuclear arsenals and anything that endangers the non-proliferation agenda should be seen as extremely costly.
The end of the US-Russia bilateral arms control regime would actually be even more costly to Russia than the US, because maintaining a large nuclear arsenal is extremely costly and Russia has less resources than the US, but even government officials frequently act against their own interests when they are outraged.
Russia’s decision to suspend its participation in the New START treaty is clearly a desperate attempt to induce the US to reduce military assistance to Ukraine, but it’s still very unlikely that Russia will resume its participation when it doesn’t work, not only because it would involve a loss of face but also because the treaty’s intrusive verification system requires a working relationship that is unlikely to survive a further deterioration of the relations between the US and Russia.
Moreover, as I noted above, non-proliferation is impossible without Russia’s collaboration and, in turn, collaboration is unlikely to happen or be very effective if the relations between the West and Russia continue to go downhill, which as long as the West keeps providing military assistance to Ukraine is certain to happen. In the worst case scenario, a desperate Russia could even help Iran get the bomb or at least close its eyes on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for help against Ukraine, which is also a significant cost.
Providing military assistance to Ukraine will also strengthen China’s hand by pushing Russia even closer to China, which in turn will increase Beijing’s ability to harm the West’s interests and, other things being equal (I discuss below to what extent that policy will make things not equal when I examine the deterrence argument), its willingness to do so.
Yet unlike Russia, which as we have seen is a relatively weak country and not a rival of the West in any meaningful sense, China actually is a threat to the US hegemony. During the Cold War, the US skillfully played China against the Soviet Union, which helped it to gain leverage in negotiations with the latter and usher in the era of détente. Now it will bring China and Russia together and increase the probability of a new Cold War. Western military assistance is not a cheap way to get rid of a rival, it’s an expensive way to help one.
Finally, while I think a nuclear escalation is very unlikely, it would also be catastrophic and taking such a risk is obviously not in the West’s interest other things being equal. Now, the only scenario in which I can see Putin ordering the use of nuclear weapons is one in which Ukraine seems poised to take back Crimea, something that only has a chance to happen if the West continues to provide military assistance to Kiev.
We could provide military assistance to Ukraine while making clear to Kiev that Crimea is off limit, but it’s unclear that we could prevent the Ukrainians from trying to take the peninsula back if they ever were in a position to do so. Indeed, as I argued previously, there are good reasons to think they would just call our bluff and that we wouldn’t go through with a threat to cut military assistance if they try to take back Crimea.
If Putin ever used nuclear weapons in Ukraine, it would create a very dangerous situation that at best would badly damage the taboo on using nuclear weapons and at worst could result in a nuclear war, because the US and its allies would have to do something and they wouldn’t have any good options.
As James Acton recently noted, if we decided to make concessions after Russia has used nuclear weapons to prevent things from degenerating into a nuclear exchange, the damage to the non-proliferation regime would be far greater than if they didn’t provide military assistance to Ukraine, which as I argued above is actually more likely to increase the risk of proliferation than to decrease it. The taboo on using nuclear weapons, which has held since 1945, would be no more.
On the other hand, if we decided to respond militarily by launching a conventional strike against Russia (we obviously wouldn’t respond with nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack against Ukraine), then either it would be limited and the taboo on using nuclear weapons would still be seriously damaged or it would be devastating and then God only knows where it would end.
Other things being equal, it’s clearly in the interest of the US and its allies not to risk finding themselves in the position where they have to make this choice, but the only way for them to make sure they never will be in that position is not to provide military assistance to Ukraine.
The argument that committing to Ukraine’s defense was necessary to deter wars of aggression is flawed
Another very common argument is that, by strongly committing to Ukraine’s defense, the West is deterring future wars of aggression. Failing to deter this kind of behavior by letting Russia get away with the invasion of Ukraine would destabilize the international system and, in the end, prove more costly than supporting Kiev.
I think people find this argument compelling because they are reasoning by analogy with the deterrence rationale for punishment in criminal law. The problem is that several important differences between criminal law and international relations that make this a flawed analogy and show that argument to be largely unpersuasive.
First, while in any large country there are millions of potential criminals, there aren’t that many countries that have the inclination and the means to invade their neighbors. At any given time, we’re only talking about a handful of them. Invading another country, even if you share a border with it, is not easy. It requires a significant amount of resources and is very risky.
This is particularly true since the advent of nationalism, which blurred the difference between soldiers and civilians, making every person in the invaded territory a potential combatant. Most statesmen understand that, in most cases, there are less costly ways to achieve their goals even if they require compromises.
Obviously, this is not always the case (otherwise there would never be any war), but nevertheless the situation is very different from the case of internal deterrence against would-be criminals. We are only talking about a handful of states that have both the inclination and means to invade their neighbors. Over a long enough period of time, the number of potential aggressors is higher, but the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not going to affect anyone’s calculus 30 years from now.
Moreover, not only is the number of states that in principle could potentially be deterred by the West’s intervention in favor of Ukraine relatively small, but in practice only a few of them even among those actually have reasons to be deterred by it because it’s widely understood that the West doesn’t care equally about what happens in different parts of the world. Thus, no matter how forcefully the West reacts to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, everybody knows that it would never react so strongly to most acts of international aggression elsewhere.
For instance, even if Rwanda launched a full-scale invasion of Congo tomorrow (it has already conducted several incursions on Congo’s territory since last year and nobody cares), Western countries would certainly react but nobody doubts that their response would be far more muted than in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It could be argued that, if few countries are inclined to invade their neighbors today, it’s not just because it’s very costly and few states can afford to even try, but also because since the end of WWII a powerful norm against wars of aggression has emerged and that it requires that third-parties react harshly against such behavior to be sustained.
Thus, so this argument goes, it’s in the West’s interest to provide military assistance to Ukraine in order to sustain that norm and ensure that even countries that have the resources necessary to undertake wars of aggression continue to regard this kind of behavior as illegitimate.
This argument was made most clearly by Richard Hanania in a recent essay where he made the case for supporting Ukraine. While I do not deny the existence of a norm against wars of aggression, and that it has a causal effect on the decision-making of government officials in many countries, I nevertheless think that argument is unconvincing.
Indeed, while it’s true that states that launched wars of aggression since 1945 have generally found little support in the international community and that even when they managed to keep the territory they had seized those annexations were usually not recognized by other states (which supports the claim that a norm against this kind of behavior exists), there is little evidence that any particular type of response from third-parties beyond the refusal to recognize the annexation of territory seized by force is required to sustain that norm.
Although the use of force to alter borders has declined since 1945, there has still been dozens of wars of aggression since 1945 that were launched by states intending to seize territory (see table 2 in this paper by Mark Zacher), not to mention acts of international aggression where that motive was absent. Yet except in a couple of cases, namely the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the response by third-parties has been very muted compared to the West’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In almost every case, though not even all of them, they have refused to recognize changes of borders when the aggressor was able to keep the territory it had seized. In the majority of cases, but again not all of them (although it has become more common since the end of the Cold War), they have responded with economic and diplomatic pressure against the aggressor. Hence the historical record hardly supports the claim that, unless the West provided military assistance to Ukraine, the norm against wars of territorial aggrandizement would be critically undermined.
As Mark Zacher observed in the paper cited above, many factors both ideational and instrumental have influenced the emergence of that norm:
Second, the reasons for such a change in beliefs and practices have varied among countries, and no single factor explains the support for the norm among a particular grouping of states. These factors include the perceived relationship between territorial aggrandizement and major international wars, the power relations between possible territorial aggressors and the major powers supporting the norm, the costs and benefits of territorial aggrandizement, and moral predispositions concerning territorial aggression.
The claim that the fate of the norm against wars of territorial aggrandizement rests on the West adopting a particular response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems completely ad hoc.
One might reply that, compared to most previous wars of territorial aggrandizement since 1945, Russia’s invasion aimed at altering internationally recognized borders in a much more radical way, which called for a particularly forceful response. However, even putting aside the fact that again we don’t know exactly what Putin’s post-war plans were for Ukraine, it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that it would have ended up well for Russia even in the absence of Western military assistance to Ukraine.
On the contrary, as I argued above, Putin’s adventure would almost certainly have ended in disaster and Russia would still have paid a high price for it, so it wouldn’t have prevented the invasion from serving as a cautionary tale for other would-be aggressors. Even if the West had not provided military assistance to Ukraine, Russia’s invasion would have been a lot of things, but certainly not costless.
All the more so that, even if the West hadn’t provided military assistance to Ukraine, it doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t or shouldn’t have done anything in response to Russia’s invasion. Economic sanctions, even not as severe as those Western countries have taken, would still have imposed a significant cost to Russia and would have been far less costly to them.
Another difference between the punishment of criminals in the domestic sphere and the punishment of states that violate international law is that, whereas criminals in the domestic sphere can’t harm the state that punishes them in any meaningful way (except in highly dysfunctional countries like Mexico where some criminal groups are powerful enough to rival state power in some circumstances), states that violate international law can often cause significant harm to those who punish them.
As we have seen, while Russia a relatively weak country that is no match for the power of the US and its allies, it still has considerable spoiling power and can harm them in a variety of ways. The expected benefits deriving from the deterrent effect of responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must be weighed against the costs of Russia’s likely response, but proponents of the deterrence argument for committing to Ukraine’s defense almost never do.
The deterrent effect of such a reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also very unclear, because while there is no doubt that it will affect the calculus of at least some would-be aggressors, it’s hardly obvious that it will make a very large difference and be decisive, yet proponents of that argument talk as if there were no uncertainty about that.
If we take the case of China, which the deterrence argument is really aimed at, it’s rather dubious that the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can deter it from invading Taiwan, because many other factors besides the West’s likely response will determine Beijing’s policy on that issue.
In particular, no matter how strongly the West’s responds to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese officials have every reason to doubt that it would respond to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the same way if only because they know that a war against China would be far more costly for the US and its allies.
Indeed, not only would it destroy the world economy no matter the outcome, but it’s hardly obvious that if China ever decides to invade Taiwan the US and its allies could actually win such a war. In fact, as China’s economy continues to grow, it’s almost certain that sooner or later we’ll reach a point where they will have no hope of winning it.
Even if they could, it would be incredibly costly. Thus, given the weight that other considerations are likely to have, it’s rather dubious that the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will prove decisive one way or the other. Of course, it’s not impossible, but that’s a far cry from what the proponents of the deterrence argument for supporting Ukraine imply.
Finally, while providing military assistance to Ukraine arguably makes other potential aggressors less likely to go through with their plans other things being equal, offering this kind of support to Ukraine makes other things not equal. Indeed, as we have seen, this commitment is harming the military readiness of the US and its allies, reducing their ability to deter China in the Indo-Pacific region and other potential aggressors elsewhere.
The argument from credibility is a self-fulfilling prophecy and a recipe for the sunk cost fallacy
People who support military assistance to Ukraine also make a number of arguments premised on the idea that it was necessary to maintain the credibility of NATO as a whole and that of the US in particular. As most arguments based on credibility, a rather nebulous concept, it’s not easy to pin down exactly what the argument is.
One interpretation is that, had the West not helped Ukraine, it would have undermined the credibility of article 5 and undermined the Alliance’s deterrent. On this interpretation, this argument is related to the deterrence argument I already criticized, but it’s more specific.
Now, it’s true that while strongly worded by historical standards, NATO’s article 5 is more flexible than people commonly realize. (This is no accident but reflects a compromise that had to be made in 1949 to ensure that the US Senate treaty would ratify the treaty.) So it’s not entirely crazy that how NATO responds to a war of aggression against a non-member state on its doorstep could have some bearing on what assumptions a would-be aggressor would make about the likely response of member states if one of them were attacked.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that when Russia invaded NATO had never committed — whether formally or informally — to provide military assistance to Ukraine in case of attack, so the reality is that not doing so would not have fundamentally changed a would-be aggressor’s perception of the likelihood that attacking a NATO member would cause a forceful response by the rest of the Alliance.
Some people deny that because they think that the Budapest Memorandum, signed by Ukraine, Russia, the US and the UK in 1994, requires the signatories to defend Ukraine in case of attack, but this is a myth. This document, which is not even a legally binding treaty, doesn’t create any obligation for the US and the UK to provide military assistance to Ukraine should it be invaded.
So this interpretation of the credibility argument, that not providing military assistance to Ukraine would undermine the credibility of article 5 in the eyes of would-be aggressors, is totally unpersuasive. But there is another interpretation, which is that it would undermine the credibility of article 5, not in the eyes of potential aggressors, but in those of member states.
This version of the argument, however, is no more convincing. Indeed, for the same reason that not providing military assistance to Ukraine would have been unlikely to undermine the credibility of article 5 in the eyes of would-be aggressors (NATO didn’t have any commitment to defend Ukraine), it’s unlikely that it would have undermined the credibility of article 5 in the eyes of member states.
But let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that it would have. What do the people who make that argument think the consequences would have been exactly? It’s not as if Poland or the Baltics, the countries in NATO that have the most to fear from Russia, would have left NATO or stopped doing everything they can to cultivate their alliance with the US.
If anything, the opposite is true, because a Ukrainian defeat would have increased their perception of the Russian threat and this would have led them to cultivate the American alliance even more aggressively. They would probably have increased their defense spending even more than they’re already going to do, but this would actually have benefited the US and the rest of the Alliance, since it would have allowed them to allocate less resources to the defense of NATO’s eastern flank.
Supporters of Western military assistance to Ukraine often claim that it has strengthened solidarity between members of the Alliance, but as usual they never spell out what this means concretely and why it’s such a good thing exactly. What it means in practice is that the interests of a small part of the Alliance have been given vastly more weight than is warranted by the interests of NATO as a whole.
Indeed, in addition to falsely suggesting that Ukraine’s interests and the West’s are perfectly aligned, arguments in favor of Western military assistance to Ukraine obfuscate a basic reality, which is that despite the rhetoric to the contrary different members of the Alliance don’t have the same interests.
Poland and the Baltics see Ukraine’s ability to remain a viable state that is not geopolitically aligned with Russia as a vital interest. Indeed, while as I argued above it’s extremely unlikely that if Russia defeats Ukraine it will turn to them next (especially as long as NATO continues to exist and they remain part of it), states are extremely paranoid when it comes to their security because the anarchic nature of the international system makes it a very dangerous environment.
Therefore, they often assume the worst and try to provide for their own security without assuming they will always be able to count on other countries to defend them, because alliances are not eternal but come and go. But while it’s arguably in the interest of some Central and Eastern European countries to provide military assistance to Ukraine, the same thing cannot be said about the US and Western European countries.
As I already explained, Americans have other commitments in the rest of the world and providing military assistance to Ukraine makes it harder for them to fulfill them, while the deterioration of relations with Moscow harms their interests because at the end of the day Russia is still the only country on earth that could destroy the US and it has the ability to make their life more complicated in various parts of the world.
Unlike most people on my side of this debate, I don’t think the Biden administration, at least not Biden and Sullivan, see this crisis as a welcome development and want to prolong the war as much as possible to bleed Russia in Ukraine.
I think they see it as a costly distraction and are eager for it to end so they can resume the pivot to Asia, but they succumbed to groupthink and their desire to shore up the Alliance by reassuring Central and Eastern European NATO members.
As we have just seen, however, providing military assistance to Ukraine can’t be justified by the desire to shore up solidarity within the Alliance. The US does have a clear interest in tending to the European alliance, because it’s a significant power multiplier for Washington, but this didn’t require committing to Ukraine’s defense.
This policy makes even less sense for Western Europeans, who are paying a heavy economic price for it because they are not insulated from the economic consequences of the war and the deterioration of relations with Russia, but they more or less reluctantly went along with it anyway as a result of groupthink and moralistic bullying facilitated by the media.
The argument that providing military assistance to Ukraine is justified by the necessity to preserve the credibility of NATO’s article 5, whether in the eyes of potential aggressors or in those of member states themselves, is not convincing.
However, despite what NATO officials constantly say, NATO is not a purely defensive alliance in practice, since it has conducted several out-of-area military operations since the end of the Cold War that had nothing to do with article 5 (which was only invoked once in response to 9/11), so the argument could also be interpreting as being about the credibility of NATO to engaged in that kind of operations.
On this interpretation, the argument is that had NATO failed to provide military assistance to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion, state and non-state actors that are inclined to engage in the sort of actions that has caused out-of-area intervention by NATO in the past would be more likely to do so because they perceive a smaller risk of intervention by NATO. But this argument doesn’t withstand even the most cursory scrutiny.
Historically, NATO’s out-of-area military operations have consisted in interventions against one side in a civil war, peacekeeping operations and a few harder-to-classify interventions such as Operation Ocean Shield, the anti-piracy operation it conducted in the Indian Ocean between 2009 and 2016.
Those had nothing to do with providing military assistance to a non-member state that is invaded by another country and, as a result, it’s dubious that anyone would have inferred anything about NATO’s propensity to conduct that kind of operations again from a failure to do that in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This is all the more true that, regardless of NATO’s response to the war in Ukraine, there was already a clear expectation from everyone that NATO would not respond in the same way to a small power like Serbia than to a country like Russia, which although it’s not a serious competitor for the West still has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world and has vast military resources.
Finally, while here is not the place to make it, there is a good case to be made that, in most cases, NATO shouldn’t have engaged in out-of-area operations. Thus, even if this version of the credibility argument were persuasive (which it isn’t), it’s not clear that we should care because maybe it would be better if NATO simply stopped conducting out-of-area military interventions altogether.
The last interpretation is closely related to the version of the argument I just examined, but it’s not specifically about NATO and more about the US hegemony, of which NATO is but one instrument. This version of the argument rests on the “world’s policeman” or, if one takes a less positive and some would say more realistic view of the US hegemony, the “capo di tutti i capi” theory of the US global role.
On this interpretation, the argument is that if the US didn’t provide military assistance to Ukraine and didn’t mobilize its allies to do the same, despite the fact that Russia violated international law without US approval (US allies violate international law, including by committing acts of international aggression, almost on a weekly basis but Washington has no problem with that), other states will see that as evidence of weakness and, as a result, will be more willing to challenge the US hegemony or simply less likely to count on the US to provide benefits in exchange for assenting to it, making them look for alternative sources of support.
This is even more true, so the argument goes, now that the US and its allies have put their credibility on the line by committing publicly to Ukraine’s defense in very strong terms. For instance, Biden declared in Warsaw that “[the US and NATO’s] support for Ukraine will not waver” and “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia”, while the EU recently issued a statement according to which “[the EU and its partners] will make sure that Ukraine prevails, that international law is respected, that peace and Ukraine’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders are restored”.
Those are very strong words and, if Ukraine doesn’t prevail in the end (which I think is extremely likely if victory is defined as the EU did in that statement), the US and its allies will indeed look pretty foolish, but this version of the credibility argument is nevertheless completely unconvincing even if we grant for the sake of the argument that the US should act as the world’s policeman, which to be clear I don’t think we should.
First, it should be noted that it largely functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy (as does the previous interpretation of the argument), because if the West’s credibility is now on the line it’s mostly because the US and its allies decided to commit to Ukraine’s defense in the first place. Indeed, as I already noted, neither NATO nor any of its members had committed to defend Ukraine in case of attack before the invasion.
It’s only because they have since then that, if Russia wins, NATO’s credibility will be harmed. To be sure, it wouldn’t have looked particularly good if Russia had invaded a country on NATO’s doorstep and the Alliance hadn’t done anything, but whatever loss of credibility this would have caused is nothing compared to what a Russian victory would do now that NATO pledged not to let that happen.
So unless they can show that it was in the West’s interest to do so, which as we have seen they can’t because none of their arguments withstands scrutiny, the proponents of that argument are in effect saying that because of them we are in a tough spot but that now that we are there it would be even worse to stop providing military assistance to Ukraine and let Russia win.
But while it’s true that it would be worse now that the US and its allies have put their credibility on the line by providing military assistance and committing to Ukraine’s defense, this doesn’t mean that we should have done so in the first place or even that we shouldn’t stop.
Indeed, even if the US and its allies don’t manage to win a war by proxy against Russia in Ukraine, they will remain by far the most powerful coalition on earth by any objective measure and ultimately this matters a lot more than people’s speculative comments about their credibility.
The idea that other countries will stop taking seriously the US, a country that still has the largest economy on earth, spends more on defense than the next 9 countries combined and dominates the institutions of world governance, because in the end it wasn’t able to stop Russia from defeating Ukraine is beyond preposterous, yet that is effectively what the people who make that argument claim.
Sure, it would be embarrassing if Ukraine ended up having to make significant concessions despite the West’s pledge not to let that happen, but people would get over it and ultimately it would not affect the US credibility in any meaningful way because again how other states interact with the US depends primarily on objective factors that will not change because Ukraine was defeated.
The US has suffered plenty of embarrassing foreign policy setbacks in the past, but it has never fundamentally changed how the rest of the world interacts with it, because the material and institutional basis of the US hegemony was not affected and ultimately this, not the nebulous concept of credibility, is what matters.
Hawks love to talk about credibility because it can be used to defend virtually any policy without having to make a real argument. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, self-fulfilling prophecies about credibility have been used over and over again to justify the continuation of failed policies, long after their failure had become evident. They are a recipe for the sunk cost fallacy.
You may object that Western military assistance to Ukraine is not a failed policy, since it has prevented Ukraine from being defeated and has allowed it to take back a significant amount of territory occupied by Russia, but this would be missing the point.
Even putting aside that again Russia has not been defeated yet and that there is no telling whether it will be and at what cost, because as long as I’m right that it wasn’t in the West’s interest to incur the costs it did to make that possible, then it’s still a failed policy from the West’s point of view.
If there was no case for providing military assistance to Ukraine in the first place, which is what my discussion of the arguments used to make the case for that policy suggests, then we should just stop providing it and not worry about the impact it will have on the West’s credibility because, today as in the past, concerns about credibility are wildly overblown.
While they may be superficially convincing, none of the arguments commonly used to defend the claim that it’s in the West’s military assistance to Ukraine withstands close scrutiny. Most of the advantages that, according to those arguments, the US and its allies derive from providing military assistance to Ukraine could have obtained at much lower cost without that.
This would be true even if the war didn’t last years only to end inconclusively, which as I have argued previously is the most likely outcome, because the costs of that policy, which aren’t limited to the monetary cost of Western military assistance, vastly exceed the benefits relative to a counterfactual in which the West didn’t provide military assistance.
By providing military assistance to Kiev and publicly committing to Ukraine’s defense, the US and its allies started down a slippery slope leading to a place they don’t know and set the stage for the sunk cost fallacy to keep them tied down in Ukraine for much longer than they would have wanted if the war drags on.
The direct cost of the aid made necessary by that policy will add up to hundreds of billions of dollars in the best case scenario and could reach trillions if the war lasts several years and escalation continues. It’s largely responsible for the European energy crisis that itself has probably costs nearly a trillion dollars already. It will Russia even closer to China, reduce the West’s military preparedness, increase the risk of proliferation and probably make the war even more deadly.
And for what benefits for the US and its allies? To get rid of a so-called rival that never posed any serious threat to them and prevent it from attacking NATO’s eastern flank later, something it never intended to do in the first place and that it couldn’t have done even if it had because it would have gotten bogged down in Ukraine even if the West hadn’t provided military assistance to Ukraine.
If we’re just considering the West’s interests, this is easily one of the most disastrous policies in recent times, but everyone thinks it was a stroke of genius because people throw around empty slogans about how we are “getting rid of a geopolitical adversary on the cheap” and others along the same lines, without anyone ever asking what this even means.
It would have been much better if the US and its allies had taken economic sanctions against Russia and just supported insurgents after the defeat of Ukraine’s conventional forces, which apparently was the original plan and would have been a very low-cost affair, but after Ukraine didn’t collapse right away we got sucked into the war little by little without even realizing it.
This didn’t happen because that policy was in the West’s interest and, after careful deliberation, Western officials recognized that and decided to adopt it. It happened because, after Ukraine amazed the world by putting up a heroic resistance to Russia, it became increasingly difficult for government officials to resist calls, both from within and without the government, to provide military assistance to Ukraine.
This was also facilitated by the fact that, in the years before the invasion, a simplistic narrative about the causes of the deterioration of relations between the West, Russia and Ukraine had already become received wisdom and was elevated to the rank of dogma after the invasion. I have already touched upon that briefly when I discussed Applebaum’s claims and this is something I plan to return to in detail in the future.
The claim that it’s in the West’s interest to do so is just a noble lie supporters of that policy came up with to convince people, starting with themselves, that it was the right thing to do, but as we have seen their arguments are unpersuasive and in reality they just want to provide military assistance to Ukraine for moral reasons.
In fact, the title of this essay is a bit misleading, because in truth I only argue that providing military assistance to Ukraine isn’t in the West’s interest. In order to make the case against that policy, I would have to argue that we are not morally obligated to do so despite the fact that it's not in our interest, but this essay is already long and people never make that argument anyway since they insist that we should help Ukraine for selfish reasons.
It wouldn’t bother me as much if they made that argument, although I think this view rests on a simplistic conception of what morality requires in international relations, but instead they pretend that it’s in the West’s interest to provide military assistance to Ukraine and, while I do not doubt they believe it, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s false.
Moralistic arguments are very powerful and, when people are morally outraged, they often don’t think enough about the long-term consequences of their decisions before acting. As Michael Mazarr demonstrated in his book on the decision-making that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, this can result in disaster.
Despite the received wisdom on that question, I actually think that, with the right combination of carrots and sticks for both Ukraine and Russia, a deal might have been reached last year after Ukraine stopped Russia’s attack on Kiev, but we’ll never know because we didn’t try and in any case that is orthogonal to the argument I’m making in this essay.
Now that Western officials have publicly committed to Ukraine’s defense, I doubt anyone will be able to get off that train anytime soon, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. The best time to stop what, no matter what happens next, is already a failed policy was before it even started. The next best time is now.
If you have read this far, even if you disagree with my conclusions, you should ask yourself if you can honestly say that you had already thought about the objections to the arguments in favor of Western military assistance to Ukraine I raised and, if you had not, how sure you are exactly that we adopted this policy because there was a good case for it and after thinking this through, rather than because we were blinded by moral outrage.
Indeed, since the beginning of the war, public dissent has been systematically punished as people who disagree with the dominant narrative are demonized and painted as useful idiots when they are not accused of consciously trying to help Putin.
The result is that dissent has largely retreated to private spaces, while public dissent has become dominated by idiots and “deplorables” whose arguments are easily refuted, which only reinforces the impression of the majority that anyone who disagrees with the prevailing narrative is at best a moron and at worse has more nefarious motives.
This is not the kind of environment in which you should expect people to make sound decisions. It’s really striking to me how blind to this phenomenon so many people who in other contexts recognize the danger of ideological uniformity are.
I doubt this essay will convince many people, though I also doubt that anyone will come up with a good rebuttal, but even if I didn’t convince you that the West shouldn’t provide military assistance to Ukraine, as long as I have at least convinced you that it wasn’t as obvious that it should, I won’t have wasted my time.
ADDENDUM: Several people have argued that, while Russia may not have attacked a NATO member if the West had failed to provide military assistance to Ukraine, it may have invaded former Soviet republics that are not in NATO, such as Moldova, Belarus, Georgia and the Central Asian republics, so I wanted to add a quick note in reply to this argument. Basically, I think that although they are not part of NATO, most of the arguments I made against the idea that Russia might invade the Baltic republics also apply here. In particular, since I think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have ended in disaster and kept it tied down over there for a long time even if the West hadn’t provided military assistance to Kiev, it would probably not have been in a position to invade other countries. But even if this were not the case, it wouldn’t be enough to make the case for Western military assistance to Ukraine, because you would also have to show that the benefits for the West of preventing Russia from dominating those countries outweigh the costs of that policy and I just don’t think it’s plausible. As I show in this essay, that policy has very significant costs that in some cases have to do with the West’s vital interests (such as preserving and strengthening the non-proliferation regime), whereas there is no convincing argument that e. g. preventing Russia from lording over Georgia is a vital interest of the West.
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