Funding a Decisive Ukraine Victory Is an Investment, Not a Cost
The United States should consider support for Ukraine as an investment and not a cost. For Ukraine to have a decisive victory—which the authors define as Ukraine returning to its 1991 borders—the United States and its allies should provide the weapons Ukraine has asked for and continue to support its economy. If Ukraine does not get the decisive support that it needs, the war will drag on with larger consequences for the world. Speed is of the essence.
U.S. citizens have strongly backed Ukraine, but that support is waning. As Russia’s war against Ukraine grinds on, Americans are asking whether it continues to be worth their tax money to finance Ukraine. According to an August 2023 CNN poll, 55 percent of Americans say that the U.S. Congress should not authorize additional funding for Ukraine. Another poll carried out by ABC News and the Washington Post in September 2023 shows that 41 percent of Americans say that the United States is doing too much for Ukraine.
Among politicians, Republican presidential candidates such as Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump, and Vivek Ramaswamy do not see Ukraine as a U.S. national interest and oppose further funding for the country’s defense. On the other hand, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Mike Pence have said that the Biden administration has not done enough for Ukraine. In Congress, beyond the Freedom Caucus, even moderate Republicans are feeling the pressure from their districts. Democrats have been more in agreement on aiding Ukraine, but there have been a few hiccups as well, such as when the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair retracted an October 2022 letter that urged the White House to negotiate directly with Russia in order to quickly end the war in Ukraine. Amid conflicting viewpoints, the Biden administration should articulate a clear vision and strategy to help Ukraine be victorious. As an important first step, President Biden has said that he will deliver a speech on why Ukraine is important to the United States.
Reasons for Ukraine Fatigue
This skepticism and fatigue over aid to Ukraine boils down to the following arguments:
- Cost and purpose of the war: The costs of the war are too high, and the war is not the United States’ to begin with. Why spend money on a country over 4,500 miles away when there are ample domestic problems (e.g., poverty, depleted infrastructure, natural disasters such as the Maui fires, and border insecurity)? This is a European problem at its core.
- Reach of the aid and lack of oversight: Ukraine has a long history of endemic corruption, so any money that the United States is spending there may be stolen or misused.
- Benefits to the United States: Ukraine is not making significant progress on the battlefield and U.S. taxpayers are not getting anything in return. Therefore, it is better to spend the money on other global issues. Furthermore, critics contend that the West risks alienating Russia and its leader, which escalates the possibility of a nuclear war.
These arguments should not be automatically dismissed as they point to legitimate concerns of U.S. taxpayers who want to make sure that their money is being used effectively for their own security and prosperity. However, a deeper look at these issues demonstrates a more nuanced picture.
- Quantity and purpose of aid: At first glance, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may seem like a European problem only. Ukraine and Russia are the European Union’s largest neighbors, and a major war next door is of direct threat to the European Union, including NATO members. Considering that the European Union is one of the United States’ top three trading partners and that the United States is part of NATO, Ukraine should be a top U.S. priority as well. Isolationism will not serve the United States well when it concerns a top ally. The United States has intermittently favored the policy, and the past few years have seen a strong comeback. But saying that Ukraine is distracting the United States from domestic issues is akin to arguing that the United States would rather give up on global trade than deal with foreign conflicts. Foreign policy directly affects the well-being of Americans.
Altogether, the United States has committed $113 billion in aid for Ukraine, which includes military, humanitarian, and economic assistance. Although this is an unprecedented sum, less than $80 billion has been actually sent to Ukraine, and 40 percent does not go to Ukraine directly but to war-related purposes (including to the U.S. military). As controversial as it may sound to some, Russia’s full-scale invasion contributed to the United States’ security and its defense sector. Sales for U.S. defense contractors went up to $50 billion in 2022 (compared to approximately $35 billion in 2021). Furthermore, these businesses are able to test their equipment in real time. This directly strengthens U.S. security.
- Reach of the aid and oversight: The history of corruption in Ukraine dominates conversations regarding the efficacy of aid. While concerns remain valid, the issue is often exaggerated when comparing Ukraine to other countries that have similar perceived levels of corruption but are enjoying certain economic advantages. For example, Mexico, a country that ranks worse than Ukraine on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, is part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while Ukraine is not. And in 2021 it received four times more foreign direct investment (FDI) than Ukraine ($31.54 billion versus $7.95 billion). Similarly, Colombia, which is not far ahead of Ukraine in the index, is also an OECD member that has received consistently more FDI than Ukraine. In 2022 alone, it received $17.04 billion, while the most Ukraine has ever attracted in FDI since independence was $10.8 billion in 2008. In general, the perception index should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism when Belarus has a perceived corruption index that is better than Ukraine’s.
Given this, the U.S. Congress specifically allocated a hefty $42 million for oversight purposes. That is plenty to get the job done. If there are problems, it is the accountability structure that should be advanced, but by no means should it be an argument to stop funding Ukraine. As of February 2023, the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (OIG) has more than 90 professionals engaged in oversight of security assistance to Ukraine. So far, there have been no reports of major fraud by the OIG. Furthermore, the OIG also collaborates with oversight staff from the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
- Returns for the United States: With U.S. support, Ukraine has demonstrated incredible results considering that Russia planned to take over Kyiv in a few days. Since the full-scale invasion, Ukraine has regained more than half of its occupied territory. Russia now occupies approximately 14 percent of the country’s territory, while at the height of the invasion in March 2022 it had about 27 percent of the territory. In addition, the United States and European Union did not have to lose any active-duty military personnel, and the transatlantic alliance has been strengthened. At the same time, “the war has severely degraded Russia’s military power and its ability to threaten NATO allies,” according to Steven Moore, the former chief of staff to retired representative Pete Roskam (R-IL). UK defense chief Tony Radakin said in July that “Russia lost nearly half the combat effectiveness of its army,” adding that“last year, [Russia] fired 10 million artillery shells but at best can produce 1 million shells a year. It has lost 2,500 tanks and at best can produce 200 tanks a year.” Russian military casualties are near 300,000. In sum, for a fraction of what the United States spends on its military every year, Ukraine has inflicted significant losses on an international competitor with no commitment of U.S. military forces.
As the number of Ukraine-aid skeptics grows, it is crucial to highlight that investing in Ukraine’s victory directly benefits the United States as well as the global economy and citizens of the world. There are intangible benefits, such as upholding the international order with democratic and moral values, deterring authoritarian states, strengthened military cooperation on the European continent, the disruption of Russia’s intelligence and propaganda campaigns across the globe, and others. There are also many tangible benefits to investing in a decisive victory, as outlined below.
Improved U.S. Security and Preventing Future Conflicts
Implementing a more proactive approach to the war in Ukraine will enable the United States to avoid exponentially more costs in the future. If Ukraine is not victorious, the risks of the war spreading further across the European continent—the United States’ main trade partner—will bear higher costs. It is also clear that if the United States and the West had invested more in Ukraine’s security as a response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the U.S. costs today would be lower on all fronts—military, humanitarian aid, and economic stability.
The United States cannot afford not to support Ukraine, as Russia will be emboldened to create more conflict around the globe, which will in turn fuel political and economic instability. Russia will likely continue its aggression, considering the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the support of the Bashar al-Assad regime, the wars against Chechnya, and the establishment of a Kremlin-backed regime in Transnistria.
Shifting Financial Support from the War Effort to Economic Modernization of Ukraine
Before the 2022 invasion, there was untapped potential for U.S. businesses to invest in Ukraine—an agricultural powerhouse with a population of 42 million and over 233,000 square miles in landmass should have been an attractive investment option. Now that Ukraine provides even more opportunities due to the need for reconstruction, it should be that much more attractive for the private sector. Ukraine will need to be rebuilt and modernized, with estimates anywhere between $411 billion to more than $1 trillion within a diverse spectrum of industries: agriculture, energy, infrastructure, IT, metals, pharmaceuticals, capital markets, and more. The sooner the United States gets involved in the modernization of Ukraine, the sooner it can outpace other investors, in particular China, in regional projects.
Strengthened Global Economy
This war has hurt the global economy by disrupting trade, energy markets, and supply chains. Specifically for the United States, Russia’s brutal invasion has affected average Americans via significantly higher gas prices. The war has slowed global growth trends, according to estimates by the OECD, the United Nations, and the International Monetary Fund. In March 2022, the OECD estimated that within the first year of the full-scale invasion, global GDP growth could slow by one percentage point while global inflation could rise by two and a half percentage points. The report stated that “the effects of the war will operate through many different channels, and are likely to evolve if the conflict deepens further.” Thus, the resolution to the war would yield global economic benefits.
Lives Saved and Fewer Refugees
The cost of the war in terms of human lives has been enormous. The United Nations estimates that as of July 2023, 9,000 Ukrainian civilians had been killed. (This is in addition to the more than 3,400 civilians who had been killed since the illegal annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas in 2014). However, Ukraine’s crimes prosecutor estimated back in February 2023 that the toll could be as high as 100,000 civilians killed. U.S. officials said that during the first 18 months of the full-scale invasion, the number of Ukrainian military casualties was between 170,000 and 190,000, while Russia’s was 300,000. These are direct causalities, which do not account for all of the indirect ones caused by the war as a result of factors like mental health or lack of access to medical resources.
The war has also caused a massive wave of internally displaced people and refugees. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that there are 6.2 million Ukrainian refugees across the globe, and nearly 5.1 million Ukrainians are internally displaced. This is a major part of Ukraine’s labor force, which directly impacts its economy. While 76 percent of Ukrainian refugees plan to return home, the longer the war, the smaller the chances of them returning home as they integrate more into societies of their host countries.
Alleviated Hunger Caused by Russia’s Weaponization of Food
Ukraine and Russia are critical suppliers of commodities, including food, fertilizers, and grain. Before the 2022 invasion, the two countries combined accounted for approximately 30 percent of global wheat exports, and both are large global exporters of oil, corn, fertilizers, and natural gas.
The global metals market has also been substantially affected.
Many of the countries that will be heavily affected by the war are those bordering Ukraine and Russia, as well as those in the Middle East and Africa. Before the invasion, Ukraine and Russia were responsible for over 50 percent of wheat imports for 15 African countries. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is contributing to the already soaring food prices in Africa. Taking into consideration the effect of economic disruptions caused by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the African Development Bank Group estimated in May 2022 that 1.8 million Africans could be pushed into poverty in 2022 and 2.1 million in 2023. There is still no clear study on how many deaths Russia’s war against Ukraine caused in Africa but these numbers are expected to be high, considering that Africans comprise about a third of those facing hunger across the globe.
The United States and its allies are not only providing aid to Ukraine but rather investing in their own security and self-interest. Investing in Ukraine now will avoid future costs to the United States and reap hefty returns in terms of economic security and stability gains. By building a stronger Ukraine, the United States is promoting security in the region, a weaker autocratic Russia, stronger democratic neighbors that border Russia, and a stronger European Union—all contributing toward stronger transatlantic security.
If Russia is not stopped, it will be emboldened to continue further into other countries, which will send a message to other authoritarian governments that they can do the same across the globe. Ultimately, this could perpetuate more conflict and exponentially higher costs. The United States will continue to risk living in a world order where international borders are questioned and trade is disrupted. This will have global consequences that will inevitably play into potential future conflicts. The faster Ukraine receives both financial and military guarantees, the sooner the war will end, bringing immediate benefits to the global economy and U.S. security.
Romina Bandura is a senior fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development and the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ilya Timtchenko is an intern with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.