National Security , Newsline

Explaining the Controversy Over Ukraine Aid

Posted on Monday, May 16, 2022
by Daniel Berman

AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman

President Joe Biden talks on the phone with President Volodymr Zelenskyy of Ukraine.

Last Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly, 368-57, to authorize an additional $40 billion in military aid to Ukraine in its struggle against Russia. All 57 who voted against the aid were Republicans. They made up a minority of the party compared with the 149 Republicans who voted in favor but were a substantial bloc nonetheless, and it is important to understand why they did what they did. There are real concerns about the scale of the aid, its affordability, and ultimately what sort of endgame the U.S. is trying to achieve in Ukraine. All of those are legitimate questions to ask, but it is important to distinguish concerns about how U.S. support for Ukraine is being approached from suggestions that it should not exist at all.

There are three major arguments against aid to Ukraine. The first is that the aid is a boondoggle, a way of burying other spending priorities under the guise of helping Kyiv. The second is that America cannot afford to spend this sort of money abroad when the U.S. economy is suffering and Americans are struggling to afford food or find baby formula in stores. The third is a wider geopolitical argument which suggests that aid is supposedly extending the length of the war, disincentivizing Ukraine to make concessions to Putin.

Interestingly, for those concerned about cost, the Republican negotiators did not reduce the size of the bill once the COVID money was removed; they merely converted the $7.1 billion of COVID-19 funding into additional military aid, raising the total to $40.1 billion, well above the $33 billion the administration requested. There is disagreement among some House conservatives over whether this should have been done, as the COVID funding is likely to pass in another bill anyway. But there is an argument to be made that all funding in the Ukraine bill will ultimately be re-invested in the U.S. With the money in the bill, Ukraine is purchasing existing weapons from U.S. stockpiles, many of which are old. Now, rather than disposing of those weapons, Congress is giving Ukraine money to pay the U.S. for them and then using that same money to replace the old weapons with new weapons. That is probably more efficient than most defense spending, as the U.S. would have to pay for new equipment eventually, and now the old equipment can at least be of use.

But what about affordability? $40 billion in Ukraine aid certainly sounds like a lot of money. Yet the FY2021 Defense budget was $740 billion, meaning that the money for Ukraine amounts to around 7% of what the U.S. was already spending on defense. The 2021 “Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill” totaled $1.2 trillion, of which $550 billion was new spending, meaning that total aid to Ukraine amounts to around 4% of that allocation. The second COVID-19 relief bill signed in March of 2021 totaled $1.9 trillion, meaning Ukraine aid amounts to around 2.5% of that.

This is not to say that any of that spending is good. The inflation problem is real, and much of it was caused by those bills. But the amount being spent on Ukraine is not the cause of America’s over-spending problem, nor is it likely to have much impact. Not sending aid to Ukraine would have made almost no dent in the deficit. Furthermore, if the problem in the U.S. is that there is too much loose money and not enough to spend it on, then the Ukraine bill is probably the most efficient usage of the money for the reasons previously mentioned. That money goes directly back to the U.S. government because Ukraine is required to use it to buy surplus weapons from existing U.S. military arsenals.

First, consider the suggestion the U.S. is fighting a proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. This is not just the view of U.S. officials, who perhaps should not have been quite so loud, but ultimately of Russian media itself, which has stressed the idea that Russia is fighting not Ukraine, but the West. This idea is at the heart of Russian messaging, not just in Russia but throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. What this means is that Russia would portray a victory in Ukraine as a sign of American weakness, the inferiority of the American system, and a reason for other nations to pursue economic ties with Russia and China rather than America. A Russian victory would be a disaster for America. It would lead to a decline in American soft power and perhaps attacks on American companies and investments.

By contrast, a Ukrainian victory would show the U.S. is a reliable partner that keeps its word, encouraging more countries to partner with the U.S. politically and economically. That is especially important in the case of a country like India, fearful of China, but not trusting Obama/Biden to place common strategic interests above personal hostility to Modi.

There is a wider economic interest at play as well. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain producers and produces nearly 50% of the global supply of neon used in microchips. Isolationists argue this makes a continuation of the war antithetical to U.S. interests because it risks causing shortages that will worsen inflation. It may well do so, but what they miss is that those supply chain issues result from allowing a few nations to gain a monopoly on global supply chains. The lack of domestic manufacturing capacity means that China has coercive power over the U.S. or Europe. Letting Russia control Ukraine’s resources might allow for greater supply and lower prices now, but only to the extent, Putin allows it. Putin would be able to raise or lower those prices at will. It is quite likely, to invoke a historical parallel, that Kuwaiti oil production would have been higher in 1991 if the U.S. had allowed Saddam to remain rather than ejecting him and causing him to set fire to the oil wells. But in the long run, allowing Saddam Hussein to control 25% of the world’s oil reserves would have led to greater economic insecurity and political instability. Those arguing we should let Russia win to prevent a supply chain crunch are akin to those who opposed Donald Trump’s trade policies toward China because China might boycott U.S. soybeans. It misses the point.

Finally, there is the moral argument that U.S. leaders are continuing the conflict for the interests of the U.S., not Ukraine, and thereby harming the Ukrainian people. First and foremost, this is a choice for the Ukrainians, but to the extent the U.S. is providing arms, and this advances our interests, this is an argument to use America’s leverage in a manner that ends the war as quickly as possible in a manner that serves Ukrainian interests and our own.

There are certainly legitimate criticisms of the Biden administration’s handling of Ukraine policy—and the Republicans who objected last week have some reasonable points. But in the midst of a war being waged by a major American adversary, a sudden abandonment of Ukraine to satisfy domestic political concerns would be a long-term disaster for America and our influence around the world.

Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman. 

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2 years ago

Political theater and the DC two step shell game. Promise anything,make it look like you are doing something,spend money and get reelected. One more item would be to try to outpace Smithfield in “pork” production.

2 years ago

The bill should have all items removed that are not directly related to military or humanitarian purposes. No added money for unrelated items.

Anyone not supporting Ukraine is foolish. Putin must be defeated or he will move on to the next country.

Dr. Nancy
Dr. Nancy
2 years ago

You forgot the argument seen on TruthSocial that the Ukrainian People are somehow responsible for the baby formula shortage and holding back aid to Ukraine will provide more formula. Many Trump supporters get all of their news about Ukraine and Eastern Europe directly from Kremlin sources and agents-of-influence like RT. So please develop a TS share button!

2 years ago

Of the 3 reasons given for holding up this current aid bill, the first is legitimate in that the Democrats should not be sneaking in more “Covid relief spending” (code for more pork spending that has little to nothing to do with Covid either) into a military aide bill. Democrats do this constantly with all spending bills, so that is a valid concern. The simple to fix to this issue is to demand the Democrats strip everything NOT directly related to Ukrainian military spending from the bill and insert a clause authorizing the GAO will monitor and audit how the funds are spent. If the Democrats are not trying to bury pork for other things in the bill, they should have no problem with that. If they do, then you know they are trying to fund something other than Ukrainian military aid. Very simple and straightforward.

As for the other two reasons given, sorry but the GOP is mixing apples and oranges on those points. The deteriorating state of our economy is due directly to the bad Democrat policies of the Biden administration. In the last 17 months of the Biden administration, Democrats have spent over $6 trillion, yes TRILLION, dollars. Much of it wastefully and to advance an unsustainable Green New Deal vision that will be a permanent drag on our economy. I think most of us here understand the way to restore our economy is to simply reverse virtually everything the Democrats and Biden have done since Biden was sworn in. That is a completely separate and distinct issue from Ukraine.

As for the ludicrous argument that cutting off military aid to Ukraine will force them to make concessions to Putin, which is somehow a good thing, is just insane. So now the GOP wants to be known as the Party that wants to stand up and fight for freedom, but only as long as it doesn’t inconvenience countries like Russia, China, Iran, etc. So after the disastrous Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan, where we lost the support of most of our foreign allies around the world, some in the GOP think it’s a smart idea to cut the legs out from underneath the Ukrainians, who in spite of Biden’s ineptitude leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are still managing to hold their own against what we thought was a supposedly invincible enemy? Really? Do we want to lose the few foreign allies we still have left around the world? I know the GOP is legendary for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, when it comes to elections, but if someone in the GOP leadership thinks this logic is going to win them more votes or friends around the world, they really need to stop taking whatever drugs they are doing.

2 years ago

War hawks at AMAC it seems.

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