The moral depravity of America's Ukraine policy
"It’s got nothing to do with you," Sen. Graham told President Zelenskyy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stood at a lectern before a group of U.S. Senators and was told to shut up and go sit at the kids table. The New York Times reported on the event: Sen. Lindsey Graham recalled telling Zelenskyy, “It’s got nothing to do with you.” But Zelenskyy is not going to get another red cent out of American coffers, because of issues that really do have nothing to do with him, and everything to do with politics.
This is depraved beyond measure.
The Biden administration’s policy toward Ukraine has always been morally questionable, from the beginning of the war. Let me first give President Biden some credit—he knew without a doubt that Vladimir Putin was going in to Ukraine in an attempt to take the whole country. He did sound the alarm on the world stage that this was real and about to happen, and that Russia would be made to pay for it.
When the Russian VDV paratroopers actually landed at Hostomel Airport, however, Biden’s concern was to get Zelenskyy out of the country alive. It was simply assumed that Ukraine would fold and within 48 hours become a vassal state under Moscow. This led to the famous line: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” Ukrainian troops defeated the Russians; America had nothing do to with that battle, not directly. NATO training of Ukrainian units, such as the 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade, did have a notable impact. It was mainly Russian incompetence and lack of rehearsal that caused the decapitation assault to fail.
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Biden had no choice but to push Congress to fund Ukraine’s defense, but in truth, the strategy was to give just enough to Ukraine to fight, not to win. As for punishing Russia, the west’s response was mostly “I’ll not be your friend anymore,” cutting off (most) trade and banking access to the world economy. Putin still collects money, and the Russian economy, though smaller, isn’t collapsing. New workarounds and responses have tightened over time, but the average Russian isn’t starving.
The Council on Foreign Relations has published six charts to explain how much aid the U.S. has sent to Ukraine since the start of the war. Of the $75.4 billion pledged, about 4% is humanitarian aid, 35% is financial, 24% is training, weapons and logistics through the security assistance fund, 31% is weapons and ammunition from existing DOD stockpiles, and 6% is grants for direct purchases through the Foreign Military Finance program—61% total is military aid.
Of that, about $4.8 billion remains, according to NPR’s Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Not everything pledged or purchased has been delivered, but it’s quite the TOE (Table of Organization and Equipment), as army-types like to call it. All the high-tech (and low tech, like artillery shells) weapons have made a difference: Ukraine has prevented Russia from breaking out of the areas it currently occupies, and has inflicted massive casualties on Russia’s army and losses in equipment.
But the U.S. didn’t provide enough, or the right mix, of offensive weapons during the phase of the war when Ukraine had the initiative. This was on purpose, as Biden’s goal was never the same as Zelenskyy’s. Ukraine’s objective was always to push Russia from its territory, full-stop, and even to recapture Crimea, which it never recognized as being part of Russia, despite Putin’s annexation. Biden’s objective was to prevent the war in Ukraine from widening and potentially drawing U.S. or NATO into the fight. Of course, Biden could have simply abandoned Ukraine to Russia and given no aid, but politically, that would not play with most Americans.
And politics has guided our response ever since that first day. While CFR offers six charts explaining our aid to Ukraine and its relationship to other, larger, expenses, like interest on the national debt, or the U.S. military’s annual budget, let me offer the political reasoning in one simple chart.
Or put differently: this. As of December 10, Donald Trump leads Joe Biden in national polls, winning in 11 out of 13 polls, and ahead by 2.4 points in the RCP average. This is the largest lead Trump has enjoyed, and completely upside down from a year ago.
And what is Biden’s Achilles’ heel? The southern border. Even Democrats are concerned that migrant pouring over the border and ending up in major cities (controlled by Democrats) is a “major problem” or an “emergency” as polls are showing. From the Washington Post:
A Quinnipiac poll in early 2021 showed a majority of Americans approved of Biden halting construction of the wall. Quinnipiac’s polling during the Trump administration showed 6 in 10 Americans doubted the border wall actually would reduce crime or the flow of illegal drugs. Yet both polls suddenly find more support for the wall than at any point since at least the 2016 campaign.
Though Trump has his own legal troubles, and many Democrats and moderates are betting that someone will step up and stop him from becoming the GOP nominee, none of that is certain, or even likely, if you believe the polls. What does this have to do with Ukraine? Well, it’s politics. Republicans are using the border to force Biden to cave to their demands in exchange for the $50 billion in additional aid to Ukraine.
But Biden doesn’t want to cave—if there’s a border deal to be had, Biden and the Democrats want to be the ones making it. Certainly, Biden will eventually have to deal with the border, as it’s just too important (politically) to ignore. But caving to Republicans in order to obtain an aid package to Ukraine is not the messaging Democrats want.
Therefore, as Erick Erickson noted, the Biden administration doesn’t really want to give Zelenskyy what he wants. Biden and the Democrats do want to blame Republicans for Zelenskyy not getting aid, so Republicans look like the ghouls here. But in reality, both parties are engaging in political depravity, letting Ukrainians die to make their petty messaging points and polling wins.
Many analysts believe at this point, with Russian forces dug in, and advanced drone, counterintelligence, and electronic warfare assets making it nearly impossible even to take 100 meters of contested ground, that the war is unwinnable by either side. As long as Russians are willing to keep pumping fresh meat into Ukraine’s grinder, and Ukraine possesses just enough artillery shells, anti-aircraft missiles, and bullets to grind the Russian troops, the war will remain a stalemate.
The war didn’t have to become unwinnable, but over the past 18 months, the Biden administration demanded it so as to not provoke Putin into destabilizing the situation and drawing America into the actual fighting. All the threats about battlefield nukes and other aggression worked. It has kept Ukraine from really taking the fight to Russia, and therefore allowed Russia to continue fueling the war, but without the ability to crush Ukrainian resistance.
Now it’s unlikely that any additional aid will meaningfully change the balance of power in the short term. Eventually, Russia may run out of things to throw into the grinder, but it’s Putin’s plan to outlast America’s, and other western allies, will to continue throwing money at Ukraine. When the money runs out, the ammunition runs out, and no matter how high tech the weapons are, without ammunition, it won’t work.
The moral path forward, of course, is to increase our aid, to allow Kyiv to push the war to Ukraine, using F-16s, more and longer range HIMARS, and other weapons like cluster munitions. The answer is to ramp up to match Putin’s ability to throw more meat into the grinder. Push the Forward Edge of the Battle Area (FEBA) back a hundred meters at a time, so Russian dug-in troops have no cover, until a real breakthrough can be exploited. That’s basic military strategy.
Putin’s strategy is not military, it’s political. He’s counting on Biden’s fear of Trump, and Republican opportunism, to win him the war. From the first day, Biden has bet on politics over morality, and Republicans have focused on opportunity over doing the right thing.
Both sides’ political games are costing lives in Ukraine, and will hand Putin one-fifth of that country in a negotiated treaty forced on Zelenskyy, who has been told to sit down and shut up, while the cynical adults decide his fate. In five years, Putin will have rearmed and (provided he’s still living) will plan to break the treaty once more, as he did with the Minsk I and II agreements.
Sen. Graham was right. It has nothing to with Ukraine, and it’s depraved as hell.