The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is growing complicated, beginning to look like a forever war, truth harder to parse each month. While Russia was dead wrong to invade Ukraine’s sovereignty – a development Biden did not deter, and arguably green-lighted – the war is radiating outward. Caution is important.
Why should we show caution? Five reasons – as horrific events continue. The horrors of this conflict remind us what war is really like – and what would happen should this war expand. Already we have seen indiscriminate killing of civilians, crimes against humanity, a nuclear power plant in jeopardy, mass graves, children being taken from Ukraine, re-educated, and put up for adoption in Russia.
All this is horrific, and to be sure we answered a moral call to help. But caution is warranted.
First – think costs. The rate of federal spending cannot continue, or Americans will find themselves back in another unending Afghanistan – no strategic justification, no attack on America, just satisfying Biden’s desire to push Putin, insecure after he invited Putin to a “little incursion,” and failed America in Afghanistan.
The overall cost to the American taxpayer, less than most European countries close to the tragedy, already tops $15 billion – defending a non-NATO country, no strategic significance, except a buffer between Russia and NATO, perhaps conveying to China we might step up for Taiwan.
Americans face devastatingly high costs for heating oil this winter. That number would cover much of the spike in US heating requirements, well beyond the expected price jumps across New England. But comparisons are never made, money is just spent, and no sense of failure abroad means added pain at home.
Second – think endgame. Ukrainians are standing up for their homeland, defending their sovereignty, and repelling the injustice of Putin’s invasion, and that is noble, good, and worthy of support. But what is the endgame? How much, how long, what endgame, and why? Do we really need another endless war?
Yes, Ukraine is deserving, but there are limits. Like funding NATO without parallel commitments, this effort begins to drain resources from other mission-critical requirements and seems increasingly political rather than security-centered, on track to continue delivering an expensive black eye to Putin. Is that reason enough?
Third – think corruption. Ukraine has been a black hole for foreign money, in years past – corruption endemic, the way corruption is in countries with weak institutions, organized crime, poorly policed, and in lengthy transition. Ukraine is officially the second most corrupt country in Europe, some might say first. This reality is being ignored, and some suspect US money may be drawn into that black hole.
Fourth – think antisemitism. Antisemitism is a historical feature of Ukraine and Russia, long a part of their society. So the idea that all hands are clean is slightly misplaced. This issue is being gingerly handled, politically soft-shoed, right now. Still, it is there. The reality is that Ukraine has not been a bastion of equality.
Fifth – think of geopolitical precedent. The real truth is, if our nation’s future and national security depended on it, then cost, ambiguous endgame, weak rule of law, and cultural prejudices might be set aside to fight to the death. That was WWI and WWII and could happen again. But that is not now.
If we set a precedent that, without any direct attack on the US, historic, NATO, or established allied commitment or historic connection, we are willing to drain our treasury, spend without limit, swallow endemic corruption in those defended, and overlook humanitarian issues, where does that lead?
The real answer is, we need to either get others engaged at a level that brings the conflict to a decisive end, not causing us to finance the better part of the battlespace, or we need to start pulling back. The costs, lack of endgame, endemic corruption, cultural prejudices, complexity of conflict, ambiguity of strategic significance, and competing needs are now tipping the balance.
To be clear, China knows we will fight for Taiwan – if we will fight for Ukraine. We have held that as undeclared policy for decades, not least because Taiwan would be the first of many Chinese conquests. They would jump from that attack to other US allies in the region, if not stopped.
Bottom line: Wars cost, and endless wars cost endlessly until those financing them go broke. Someday, we may need to fight to the death again, as we have had to before, but Ukraine is not the Hill to die on.
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