The Impact of Ending Military Aid to Ukraine: Gradual Decline, Then Collapse

As Congress dithers about funding aid to Ukraine, Ukrainian military capabilities decline. This decline is gradual. Previously committed weapons, munitions, and supplies will keep some equipment flowing for months or even years. However, the effects of declining aid will be increasingly apparent on the battlefield. Ukraine is no longer able to conduct a counteroffensive. By February or March, it will have difficulty conducting local counterattacks, and by early summer, it will struggle to fend off Russian attacks. At some point, the front will collapse, and Russia will impose a harsh peace.

Q1: Why is military aid needed?

A1: Militaries in combat need a continuous flow of munitions, weapons, and supplies to replace those destroyed or used up in operations. For example, during its counteroffensive earlier this year, Ukraine was firing munitions at an extremely high rate, about 6,000 artillery rounds per day. Ukraine will not run out of ammunition, as some resupply will continue from U.S. and global sources. However, as the flow of ammunition declines, Ukraine will have to prioritize targets. Instead of firing at suspected enemy locations, it will only be able to fire at identified locations. Eventually, it will only be able to fire at the most dangerous targets, such as those that are shooting at Ukrainian forces.

Similarly, militaries lose equipment at a steady rate. Without replacements, units lose firepower. That means relying more on humans and suffering higher casualties.

Q2: What aid does the United States provide to Ukraine?

A2: Military aid is only a part of the broader U.S. efforts in response to the war. That total effort includes funding for U.S. forces surged to eastern Europe; U.S. government agencies other than the Department of Defense (DOD) doing war-related work; global humanitarian assistance; and economic support to the Ukrainian government. This commentary focuses on military aid, but it is important to keep the broader perspective in mind since a cutoff of aid would also affect these other areas.

Q3: What is included in U.S. military aid?

A3: There are three elements of military aid: Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA), the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), and funding to replace the equipment transferred under PDA. PDA allows the president to send equipment from U.S. stockpiles to Ukraine. Because this equipment already exists, it arrives quickly. The USAI provides funds for services to Ukraine, including training, buying weapons on the world market, and for Ukraine to contract for production of new equipment. Production of new equipment takes several years—typically a two-year lead time for production and then another year or so to deliver the items.

Q4: What military aid has the United States committed to?

A4: Every two weeks or so, DOD announces an aid package. These packages specify how DOD will spend the money or use the drawdown authority that Congress has provided. The graph below shows the monthly drawdown authority used (blue line) with the equipment acquisition funding (through USAI) added on top (red line).

Remote Visualization

Several insights emerge from the chart:

  • A large spike in drawdown occurred in January 2023 in preparation for the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
  • Except for this spike, PDA commitments ran steadily at about $1 billion per month.
  • There were several spikes in equipment acquisition for Ukraine (red line) as programs were packaged together.

A decline in commitments began in August as funding started to run out; PDA transfers in December were about 20 percent of the previous average level.

Q5: How long will the flow of equipment continue?

A5: Because drawdowns take months to deliver equipment and contracts take years, the flow of equipment will not end at once but go on for years. Deliveries in any month come from commitments made in many previous months.

The chart below shows an estimate of when deliveries, as opposed to commitments, have occurred and projects a year into the future. (Note: DOD has not released delivery data for security reasons. The charts are built using publicly available information, assuming that drawdown deliveries take place over nine months and contracts take place over twelve months after a two-year contracting/production lead time.)

Remote Visualization

Several trends are apparent from this data:

  • Deliveries surged from January 2023 to August 2023 in support of the counteroffensive.
  • After November 2023, deliveries dropped precipitously and will hit bottom in early summer 2024. This bottom is about 12 percent of the counteroffensive peak.
  • Deliveries will increase slightly in the late summer of 2024 as production from acquisition contracts begins to arrive.

Q6: Can other countries pick up the slack?

A6: Europeans and others have committed to providing $51 billion of military aid. If that aid has the same short-term and long-term split as U.S. aid and delivers along the same timelines, that’s about $1 billion per month. That is substantial and critical to Ukraine.

There have been calls for European nations to “step up” and close any gap created by U.S. reductions in aid. Unfortunately, this is highly unlikely. European governments face the same pressures as the United States. Critics on both the left and right argue that the money is needed at home and that this has become a “forever war” that continues at high cost and great suffering but without resolution. New European commitments have dropped precipitously. If the United States reduces its aid, European countries will probably do the same.

Q7: What will be the effect of reductions in military aid?

A7: Reductions in military aid will cause the Ukrainian military to gradually lose combat power. Already, Ukraine has lost the ability to conduct counteroffensives. By early spring, even local counterattacks will be difficult. Ukrainian cities will suffer more destruction as air defenses weaken and more Russian missiles get through. By early summer, Ukraine will be hard-pressed to hold back Russian attacks. Eventually, its front will crack, and the Russians will make major territorial gains. Complete collapse might follow.

However, Ukrainian leaders won't wait for military catastrophe. They will understand where the war is headed and make a deal with Russia. The obvious deal is an in-place ceasefire with some provisions for continuing negotiations regarding the future status of territories and populations. A plebiscite for Crimea might be a possibility.

This would be a partial Putin victory. Putin had originally hoped to take over the entire country, but he failed. Nevertheless, he controls 17 percent of Ukraine and would claim that he defeated not just Ukraine but NATO and the world.

Despite these partial successes, Putin might not accept this deal. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, he would know that time was on his side. He might press his advantage to get more, perhaps relief from sanctions, renunciation of reparations, and amnesty for war criminals.

Q8: Can aid continue without supplemental funding from Congress?

A8: The Biden administration’s lawyers are no doubt combing through the statute books to find mechanisms by which the administration might continue supplying equipment without additional money from Congress, for example, through the Excess Defense Articles program. However, these improvisations will not produce enough equipment or money to sustain Ukraine’s war effort. The money would have to come from some agencies’ existing funds, probably DOD’s. That would mean cutting other programs and meeting resistance from Congress and the agency.

DOD still has about $4.4 billion in drawdown authority remaining after December’s $400 million aid packages, even though funds to replace these transferred items are exhausted. In theory, DOD could keep sending weapons and munitions. There is no statutory requirement to replace equipment sent to allies under this authority.

However, this creates risk in other possible conflicts since the U.S. military, particularly the Army, would be weaker because of the inventory reductions. Some would argue that the risk is worth accepting, but others would describe it as unilateral disarmament. 

The United States will likely continue to send a little equipment―$200 million to $400 million per month―even if there is no replacement and accept the risk. It could space these transfers out, allowing Ukraine to maintain a minimum capability over an extended period. It might also send items where inventories are robust to lessen risk, though these items might not be the greatest need.

Mark F. Cancian is a retired Marine colonel and senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.