The United States has so far sent $46.6 billion in military aid to Ukraine, or just 5.25% of its annual budget, and most of that went to the American defense sector anyway.
“We thought the Russians had the second-best army in the world. Now we know they have the second-best army in Ukraine.” So goes the joke among Ukrainians, who can perhaps be forgiven for exaggerating the incompetence and inefficiency of Vladimir Putin’s war machine. The inescapable conclusion after nearly two years into the full-scale invasion is that Russia’s military, once seen as a major conventional threat to the collective might of NATO, has struggled to best even a much smaller adversary it was meant to conquer in a few days.
Once seen as a major conventional threat to NATO, Russia’s military has struggled to best even a much smaller adversary
As Ukraine’s anticlimactic summer counteroffensive abates (and the Western media excitedly reverts to another cycle of hyperbolically dire assessments and forecasts about the war), it is easy to lose sight of the remarkable fact that Ukraine has recaptured over 20,000 square miles of terrain and continues to deliver a succession of tactical and strategic humiliations to Moscow. Most recently, it has forced the Black Sea Fleet to relocate its historic naval base - in occupied Crimea - 500 miles east to Novorossiysk in Russia-proper. through the use of harassing drones, missile attacks, and marine raids, – Ukraine has achieved a feat of deterrence the British, French, and Turks would have envied as far back as the mid-nineteenth century. This is to say nothing of Ukraine’s ability to strike well behind enemy lines via its hypertrophied covert action capability. The SBU, the country’s domestic security service, has reportedly blown up two cargo trains in Siberia, some 3,000 miles from Ukraine’s border, according to a Ukrainian source speaking to Reuters.
If anything resembling a normal political environment existed in the United States, Ukraine’s battlefield successes to date would be trumpeted as an enormous return on investment. But as of writing, the latest security assistance package, which included $61 billion of aid for Ukraine plus funding for Israel and Taiwan, stalled in the Senate, the victim of partisan squabbles over a supplemental border security package and curbs on immigration. Traditionally hawkish Republicans would uniformly lambast the Biden administration in op-ed pieces and on cable news for not sending more and better-quality military hardware to Ukraine to make good on U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s April 2022 promise: “to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Instead, the most vocal spokespersons in the party insist too much has already been done and weakening Russia is either not in America’s strategic interest or is dangerously counter to it.
If Donald Trump wins the next general election, the future of U.S. security assistance will be in peril
Dressed in the shabby nativist and populist garb of MAGA, they grumble loudest about the money. It should, they insist, be here at home rather than abroad in a country no one cares about. “Ukraine is not the 51st state of the United States,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene told 60 Minutes in April. “We’re $31 trillion in debt. We’re not defending our own border. We’re ignoring our own people’s problems.” Greene’s colleague Matt Gaetz routinely echoes these sentiments. “Our values aren’t on the line for which guy in a tracksuit runs Crimea,” he said in March. If Donald Trump wins the next general election, Greene and Taylor’s voices, loud but few, will drown others in the House and Senate and the future of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine (and so much else) will be in peril.
Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene
Washington’s bloated defense budget, initially the accrued product of decades of Cold War, has been sustained since the fall of the Soviet Union by the Global War on Terror, including two full-scale military occupations of foreign countries, and a mounting strategic fear of the rise of China. In 2022, the United States spent $877 billion on defense – more than the next ten countries combined, including China, even though as a percentage of gross domestic product, defense spending is actually at historic lows (down to three percent versus six in 1983) and, due to inflation, contracting in terms of purchasing power.
“The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers,” stated a summary of the National Defense Strategy from 2018, four years after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine and four years before its full-scale one. “It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions,” the document continues, citing Russia seven times and China eight. Moscow, as it routinely likes to point out, possesses the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, the vast majority of which are still pointed squarely at the United States.
Pre-February 2022, the popular perception of Russia’s military was largely that of an effectively modernized and reformed force that had used its recent intervention in Syria to gain valuable combat experience, supposedly the crowning achievement of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s heavily publicized military reforms. Yet this assessment was quickly proven to be incorrect. As Rand Corporation’s Clint Reach described it, the reforms and modernizations had created “what you might call a Potemkin village of military capability,” albeit one that had impressed many Western observers. 647 days into Putin’s “special military operation” that village lies in ruins.
The reforms and modernizations of the Russian army created “a Potemkin village of military capability”
Russia has lost over 2,500 tanks, according to open-source trackers, and has been reduced to pulling 70-year-old relics from deep storage to make up for their disastrous losses. The most capable and highly trained units in Russia’s military -- including the VDV airborne forces that spearheaded Russia’s blitzkrieg on Hostomel airport on day one of the invasion, and the Fourth Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division that was bogged down around Sumy -- have been decimated. Whatever the amount of investment Putin makes in Russia’s military, rebuilding it to pre-February 2022 strength – even in simple terms of materiel -- will likely take at least a decade.
What’s more, this hollowing out of America’s strategic enemy has come at a bargain. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, the United States sent $46.6 billion in military aid to Ukraine between January 24, 2022, and July 31, 2023, which equates to just 5.25% of America’s annual $877 billion military budget. And even that headline figure is deceptively represented.
A significant amount of the military assistance supplied to Ukraine has been taken directly from Defense Department stocks under what is termed “presidential drawdown authority.” In other words, this is equipment the Pentagon has already paid for, often decades ago. The actual dollar figure quoted is more often than not used to restock America’s own military, usually with modernized or updated versions of older weapon systems that are being sent to Ukraine. So in many cases, the Biden administration is spending money “for” Ukraine on revitalizing America’s own arsenal.
“One of the confusing parts of security assistance is the accounting practices used when the Defense Department sends its used equipment to other countries,” according to Col. Scott Nauman, Director of Security Force Assistance and Stability Proponent at Fort Leavenworth, a division of the Combined Arms Center of the U.S. Army. “In accounting terms, the used equipment is taken off the books using its full replacement value,” Nauman told The Insider. “In other words, if Congress authorizes $100 million in aid and a new vehicle costs $10 million, then 10 of the old vehicles are sent while the $100 million is used to buy new replacement vehicles for U.S. troops. So in reality, Ukraine gets the older vehicles that are actually worth far less than $10 million each if you consider depreciation.”
“The U.S. Department of Defense sends its used equipment to other countries, taking it off the books at its full replacement value” – Col. Scott Nauman
Getting rid of old kit by letting another army wield it also means not having to pay for warehousing or decommissioning it. A perfect example of this was the recent supply of 155-millimeter dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICMs), more commonly known as cluster bombs. These shells, which were designed in the 1970s at the height of the Cold War, were intended to be used on massed ranks of Soviet infantry and armor. Since 2008, the Defense Department has been phasing these munitions out of active service while retaining the option to use them in “extreme situations,” in compliance with the military’s turn toward a newer generation of precision-guided munitions more suitable for use in the lower-intensity counterinsurgency conflicts of the post-9/11 era.
At a conservative estimate, there are still at least two million DPICM shells in U.S. stocks. They have to be stored and eventually disposed of at a considerable cost to the American taxpayer. According to U.S. government figures from 2015, it costs $4.2 million each year to store DPICMs. And disposing of them safely would cost $200 million. Yet gifting these surplus munitions to Ukraine, a country now fighting the exact type of war DPICMs were designed for, removes these maintenance and disposal expenses altogether while also yielding added financial benefit in degrading the military power of a key strategic adversary of the United States.
Dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICM)
Handout / DVIDS / AFP
Indeed, since these shells have arrived, the Ukrainians have been using them to extract a severe toll on Russian forces, and their effectiveness is demonstrated in open-source footage of their use and by the sheer amount pro-Russian Telegram channels complaining about them. Cluster bombs have been crucial in defending against Russian attacks on the eastern town of Avdiivka, shredding large columns of Russian armor and waves of infantry. Not bad for all-but-mothballed ammo.
The like-for-like cost of replacing these old cluster bombs still counts in the headline figure of U.S. military aid given to Ukraine, but the ultimate benefit is to the U.S. military; the Pentagon had already been procuring and developing replacements for these weapons.
Consider the Cold War-era M113 armored personnel carrier, which the Pentagon has sent to Ukraine. “The Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, which will replace M113s in U.S. service, was slated to have its procurement budget cut, but the Ukraine supplemental appropriations have provided funding so that the AMPV can enter full-rate production,” Colby Badhwar, an independent security analyst, told The Insider. “This both creates jobs at BAE Systems’ York, Pennsylvania facility,” he said, referring to the U.S. defense contractor that makes the AMPV, “and ensures that American soldiers will have modern APCs. Sending old M113s to Ukraine therefore simultaneously equips two armies at once.”
“Sending old M113s to Ukraine simultaneously equips two armies at once, as it ensures that American soldiers will have modern APCs” – Colby Badhwar
Conservative Washington Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen, along with his colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, has literally mapped out where Ukraine security assistance is catalyzing industrial growth in the United States, locating “13 production lines in 10 states and 11 U.S. cities producing new American-made weapons for NATO members to replace the equipment they have sent to Ukraine.”
Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, calculates that “about $68 billion of the $113 billion enacted (60 percent) would be spent in the United States, benefiting the armed forces and U.S. industry.” Moreover, the bottom line for U.S. industry is set to swell thanks to bolstered foreign arms sales.
Since Ukraine is a proving ground for materiel that is seeing combat for the first time against the state power it was developed to counter, major defense contractors are finding eager buyers for dated kit. For instance, the M142 HIMARS – the bane of Russian supply lines and command-and-control facilities in occupied Ukraine – are now on order from Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. That’s good news for Lockheed Martin, which manufactures both HIMARS and the artillery rockets they fire, and even better news for workers in Camden, Arkansas, where the company’s mobile rocket launcher plant is based.
Among the variety of munitions the HIMARS fires is the Army Tactical Artillery Missile System, or ATACMS. When the Biden administration finally consented to sending Kyiv this much-coveted ballistic missile, it was the dated and technically expired M39 variant with cluster warheads and a limited range of 190 miles. Nevertheless, its debut was seismic. Six M39s either damaged or destroyed around 21 Russian attack helicopters at two different Russian-occupied airbases, among them a significant number of the formidable Ka-52 “Alligator” gunships, which had harried Ukrainian soldiers during Kyiv’s counteroffensive in the summer. Each M39 originally cost the U.S. taxpayer $621,000 when developed in 1996, or $1.16 million in today’s value adjusted for inflation. Each Alligator costs Russia approximately $16 million.
Even more remarkable is that the U.S. isn’t even sending the best of its antiquated systems but rather pared-down versions of it – yet they still work.
“In most cases, the U.S. is providing military equipment such as M777 howitzers and Abrams tanks that has been downgraded, thus reducing its effectiveness, to prevent sensitive equipment from falling into Russian hands,” Lt. Col. Jahara Matisek, a U.S. Air Force pilot and a military professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College, told The Insider. “Most European countries, for example, have been providing Ukraine with their best military systems, with most Leopard tanks given to Ukraine having all the full kit, making them much more effective than American Abrams.”
The Pentagon is said to have been opposed to parting with its main battle tank, citing the need for it in the event of other wars in different hemispheres, even though Ukraine remains the ideal battlefield for the Abrams. “Some of the kit the United States developed was specifically to fight the Soviets in Europe,” said Dr. Anthony Tingle, Program Director of the Institute for Future Conflict at the United States Air Force Academy. “Some of these weapons won’t be very useful in a fight in the South Pacific. How many Abrams tanks are we going to shuttle from island to island?”
The demonstrable success of the Patriot air defense system, yet another platform Pentagon bean-counters were against sending to Ukraine, has utterly rehabilitated that signature platform’s reputation after decades of lackluster performance in the Middle East.
“Patriot missiles are made in America and fail everywhere,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in March 2018. Research from the Congressional Research Service and the General Accounting Office determined that older model Patriots in service with the U.S. military hit “between zero and four” of the 44 Iraqi Scud missiles the system engaged during Operation Desert Storm.
Once the red-headed stepchild of Western air defense, the Patriot now has every right to be labeled the wunderwaffe of the Ukraine war
But the newer PAC-2 and PAC-3 variants of the Patriot delivered to Ukraine in April 2023 have performed almost faultlessly against far more sophisticated missiles. On May 4, the Patriot shot down a single “Kinzhal,” Russia’s much-vaunted “invulnerable” hypersonic aeroballistic missile. On May 16, it shot down six in the midst of a massive fusillade against Kyiv, featuring Kalibr and Iskander-K cruise missiles and half a dozen supplied Shahed-136 suicide drones. Once the red-headed stepchild of Western air defense, the Patriot now has every right to be labeled the wunderwaffe of the Ukraine war, a fact noticed not only by Moscow but also by Beijing. Taiwan operates seven batteries of the PAC-3s. No doubt other countries will now be looking to field these systems, too.
America’s outsize support for Ukraine has led to other felicitous consequences that today’s GOP ought to admire. A bugbear of the Trumpian right is that most allies in NATO are deadbeats and freeloaders because they fail to meet the preferred alliance standard of spending two percent of their gross domestic product on defense. An argument not without merit, this shortfall has often put disproportionate weight on Uncle Sam’s intercessions in coalition conflicts, including closer to the allies’ own backyards, such as Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.
Well, since February 2022 defense spending across Europe has risen.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron’s government pushed through a 40-percent boost in its defense budget for the 2024-2030 period, with Macron successfully arguing it was essential to keep France safe, replenish France’s stocks, and continue to resupply Ukraine’s. In Germany, defense spending is also getting a $1.8 billion boost, finally bringing Berlin’s defense expenditure just above the two percent-of-GDP NATO benchmark. Poland, meanwhile, is investing in new military hardware at a staggering rate, aiming to spend four percent of its GDP on defense in 2024.
Paris and Berlin’s volte-face or zeitenwende bear further notice. NATO’s two principal allies in Western Europe are habitually fond of questioning the reliance on American leadership in Europe at the expense of their own hypothetical versions of it. But the largest land war in Europe since 1945 has provided the impetus to make “strategic autonomy,” to coin Macron’s term, look less quixotic.
France is now nearly as forward-leaning on Ukraine as the United Kingdom in its provision of long-range SCALP-EG cruise missiles, which, along with the British counterpart Storm Shadows, were used to successfully strike a number of Russian warships in Sevastopol as well as the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet in the same city. One senior U.S. official told the present writers after the announced provision of these cruise missiles in May that London and Paris had in fact determined the pace for Washington’s security assistance for once, making Biden’s eventual decision to send ATACMS to Ukraine – again, over strenuous objections from the Department of Defense – that much easier given diminished anxieties over escalation. (Russia only retaliated against the Brits and French by letting its propagandists threaten to nuke them – again.)
Even more head-turning is the evolution of Germany's policy on Ukraine. As of August 2023, Berlin donated $18.9 billion in military aid to Ukraine and is finalizing the doubling of the amount of the military budget it will send to Ukraine next year, from $4.3 billion to $8.6 billion. It has also provided some of its most advanced weaponry from Leopard 2 tanks to IRIS-T air defense systems to Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzers. That this comes from the chancellery of Olaf Scholz, a German Social Democrat who once had heart palpitations about sending Ukraine battle helmets to Kyiv, is no less extraordinary.
As of August 2023, Berlin donated $18.9 billion in military aid and some of its most advanced weaponry to Ukraine, including Leopard 2 tanks
Smaller NATO countries are also making outsize contributions relative to their economies and populations. Denmark alone has donated $3.7 billion in equipment to Ukraine, a dispensation that includes emptying its entire stock of 19 CAESAR self-propelled howitzers. Copenhagen has also pledged to give 19 F-16 multirole fighter jets to Ukraine – a third of the total airframes so far committed.
In all, the Kiel Institute concludes, the United States «accounts for 43 percent of the total value» of military aid to Ukraine, while «all EU countries and institutions together account for 47 percent.»
It is no contradiction to say that European strategic autonomy’s rough entry into the world has been midwifed by American resolve. Had the United States not supported Ukraine to the extent it has, or waged a concerted intelligence-leak campaign to warn skeptical allies on the continent that war was coming, would these countries have been so bullish? It’s unlikely.
Kyiv’s “tank coalition,” as Ukraine’s former defense minister Oleksii Reznikov termed it, was built because Scholz stubbornly refused to release the Leopards – not just Germany’s, but other countries’ inventories of them – unless the United States sent its Abrams. This you-first fandango, pathetic though it seemed in real time, has at least ensured that Europe, not the United States, is the main supplier and maintainer of the heaviest piece of armor in Ukraine’s arsenal for the foreseeable future, furthering its interoperability with NATO.
The debate in Brussels now has turned to how the EU can sustain the war effort in the event that Trump returns to the White House and decides to “defund” Ukraine. “Our biggest problem is [Viktor] Orban,” one well-placed Western diplomat in the EU told The Insider, referring to Hungary’s pro-Russian prime minister, who has repeatedly held up EU military and economic aid to Ukraine and more recently has been threatening the country’s accession to the bloc. “But support for Ukraine is strong, and there are still people here who say, ‘We told you, we can’t rely on the U.S. We need to do it ourselves.”
By arming Ukraine, the Biden administration has cajoled ambivalent or tentative NATO allies into shouldering more of the burden for a European nation at war
The Biden administration, then, has done three things simultaneously by arming Ukraine, all of which MAGA bangs on about in advocating the United States “defund” Ukraine. It has created and is still creating new manufacturing jobs at home while breathing new life into an obsolescent or sclerotic American defense sector. It has cajoled ambivalent or tentative NATO allies into taking more responsibility for their own security and shouldering more of the burden for a European nation at war. It has radically diminished the conventional threat posed against the United States by Russia – a threat previously anatomized by Donald Trump’s own Defense Department – thereby freeing up resources, attention, and bandwidth for deterring China, the other state power posing such a threat. All this without the deployment of a single American soldier to a combat zone or the loss of a single American life overseas. You might even say the vanguard of the Republican Party should by now be “tired of winning;” instead, they insist, getting everything they ever claimed to have wanted is presented as a colossal defeat.