Arming Ukraine: Why it's in American Interests

Friday, December 15, 2023

Every GOP senator voted no this week on a supplemental funding bill that included money for Ukraine. The vote, which failed 49-51, required 60 supporters in order to pass. Republicans voting no mainly argued that they wanted the Biden administration to make concessions regarding US border policies before they would consider supporting the spending bill. 

Bernie Sanders also voted against the measure, which included funding for Israel, arguing that the US shouldn't be giving money to the Israeli government "with no strings attached." 

In fact, it seems likely that, eventually, the measure will pass and that aid to both Ukraine and Israel will continue. At the same time, however, the vote points to a worrying trend regarding the evolution of American thinking regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. 

In the words of a Washington Post piece discussing the vote: 

While there was broad bipartisan support for Ukraine after Russia invaded in February 2022 — as well as widespread public displays of support for Ukraine — interest in the war among the American public has waned considerably, especially as it has ground to a stalemate with no clear end.

An Economist-YouGov poll released late last month found that 22 percent of Americans favored increasing military aid to Ukraine, 28 percent favored decreasing it and 27 percent wanted to maintain the same amount.

I can't say I'm surprised. Indeed, I predicted something like this back in February of 2022, just a few days after Russia attacked Ukraine, writing that "I wouldn't be at all surprised if the future involvement of the US in NATO, and the scale of the involvement, were to become campaign issues this fall, and in 2024." 

Americans can't be counted on to support anything universally anymore, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. After all, post-9/11 there was an unusually large amount of political unity in the United States, and where did that lead us? More than 70% of Americans supported the war in Iraq in March of 2003. 

American support for
Iraq War, March 2003

So, sometimes maybe a little bit of political division isn't such a bad thing. And frankly, it's not a bad thing for Americans to be asking whether or not arming Ukraine is a good idea. It's a fair question, one that deserves a thoughtful answer. 

And people (like me) who support the US continuing to arm Ukraine need to make a clearer case for why this is necessary.  Right now there's too much preening and pandering on social media, and not enough honest discussion regarding where US interests lie with respect to the Russia-Ukraine war. 

For starters, advocates of arming Ukraine need to articulate that they support doing so out of a concern with American interests, not specifically Ukrainian ones. While I feel as much sympathy for Ukrainians as anybody else, it's not the job of the US president to protect them. Instead, it's the US president's responsibility to protect Americans and the interests of the United States. A lot of well-meaning words have been written, primarily by American academic specialists on the region, which focus upon what the world owes Ukraine. In many ways, I'm sympathetic to these arguments, but they're not going to change the minds of Americans who wonder, justifiably, why the US is sending billions of dollars to Ukraine when that money could be spent here. 

So why is arming Ukraine in American interests? 

Twice in the 20th century the US was drawn into conflicts that would have ended much sooner had the US been more involved from the beginning. 
Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is not simply going to go away if he gets what he wants from Ukraine. 

He's going to want more, because that has become the nature of his regime at this point--one that reflects Putin's obsession with rolling back NATO's expansion since the 1990s. A Russian victory in Ukraine would hardly signal the end of diplomatic and military conflict in eastern Europe. Rather, it would signal the start of a new stage of this conflict, hundreds of miles further west. 

I, for one, would much rather have the Russian Army stuck in a quagmire in eastern Ukraine than see it massing on the border with NATO states in western Ukraine. If Ukraine is defeated and becomes a satellite state of Moscow in the manner of Belarus, that's what we have to look forward to. 

The point isn't to virtue-signal our personal concern for Ukrainians, but rather to acknowledge that, at this particular moment in history, Ukrainian and American interests coincide. American voters need to be told that it'll be a lot easier to deal with a Russia that is stuck in the mud outside Kharkiv than one that, flush with a victory in the form of Ukrainian defeat, is looking to teach NATO another lesson. Handing Putin such a victory by--especially when it's so unnecessary--would be a major tactical error. 

And then there's this: as cynical as this might sound, Ukraine doesn't need to necessarily defeat Russia for US interests to be advanced. For as long as the Russian Army is pinned down and bleeding out in eastern Ukraine, the European Union and United States will benefit. Vladimir Putin has made an historically significant blunder in attacking Ukraine, one that has significantly degraded Russia's pre-war armed forces. Why on earth should we let him off the hook? 

The hope, of course, is that Ukraine wins the war and defeats Russia, but simply offering continued resistance to Russia--and keeping the Russian Army occupied--is a far better alternative than allowing Vladimir Putin to emerge from his war of choice with a "victory" in the form of territory in eastern Ukraine and possible regime change in Kyiv. For as long as the Ukrainians are willing to fight, we should help them. 

Just as the United States was right to arm the Afghans who were resisting Soviet occupation in the 1980s, it makes sense for the US and its allies to help Ukrainians fight the Russians. And yes, I do realize that the mujahideen the US supported ended up morphing into the Taliban--but arming them in the 80s in an effort to keep the Red Army occupied was still the right thing to do. The mistake that the US made, years later, was in allowing the Taliban to host Osama bin Laden and then, after 9/11, trying to occupy Afghanistan following the rout of the Taliban forces in 2001-2002. 

There's been, in my view, altogether too much wishful thinking lately regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. On the one hand, politicians and others who are calling for an end to funding Ukraine are deluding themselves if they think Vladimir Putin is going to be satisfied once he's transformed Ukraine into a Russian satellite. Putin made this absolutely clear with the demands that he made from NATO immediately prior to the beginning of the invasion in February of 2022. His beef isn't just with Ukraine, it's with NATO more generally. None of this is going to stop with Ukraine. 

But I think that too many individuals who support the continued arming of Ukraine are likewise deluding themselves.   Ultimately, Americans will choose whether or not to support Ukraine not out of a concern with Ukrainians or Ukrainian interests per se, but because they feel that such a move would align with American interests. 

And that, I think, is the argument that we need to be making now. 

More on the Russia-Ukraine War: 

Regrouping in Belgrade N & P

Russia-Ukraine Notes: Early October Edition

All Crimea/Ukraine posts since 2008

Re Russia-Ukraine: Changes Coming?

Back and Forth in the Quagmire

A "Mission Accomplished" Moment?

This past week...

More Thoughts Re Ukraine and NATO

The USA: NATO's Weakest Link?

Brown Trouser Time

Looking for the Long-Term in Putin's Moves

Moscow Recognizes Two Breakaway Republics: Why do this?

South Ossetia and the Fate of the 'Mini-Republics' (from 2008)

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