United States Aid to Ukraine: An Investment Whose Benefits Greatly Exceed its Cost

So far, there has been only limited domestic political resistance in the United States to continuing civil and military aid to Ukraine. A few political figures like the newly reelected Marjorie Taylor Greene have taken a totally negative stance: “Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine”; "Our country comes first," and more recently, a tweet that said, “We must stop letting Zelensky demand money & weapons from US taxpayers while he is trying to drag us into WW3. No more money to Ukraine. It’s time to end this war and demand peace.” 1

There have, however, been more realistic warnings about the possible growth of opposition to such aid like those of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy: "I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine. They just won’t do it.” A recent poll has also shown that the number of Republicans who feel the U.S. is doing too much for Ukraine rose from 6 percent in March 2022 to 30 percent of all Americas - and 48 percent of all Republicans - at the end of October. 2

These trends warn that there are no guarantees that the U.S. will continue to provide adequate aid to Ukraine in a future where Ukraine may need major amounts of U.S. humanitarian, civil, and military aid for years to come, and where getting Russia to pay for any major aspect of the Ukraine’s recovery after a peace settlement seems to be more of a dream than any credible reality.

Much of this rising U.S. opposition to continuing aid to Ukraine does, however, come from only considering its cost and ignoring the strategic benefits it provides to the U.S. It is developing because far too much of the reporting on the Ukraine war ignores the fact that the U.S. has already obtained major strategic benefits from aiding the Ukraine, and that such aid it is one of the best investments the U.S. can make in competing with Putin’s Russia and in advancing its own security.

Focusing on the price tag of aid instead of the value of what it buys ignores the fact that the war in Ukraine has become the equivalent of a proxy war with Russia, and a war that can be fought without any U.S. military casualties, that unites most of the world’s democracies behind a common cause, that deeply punishes Russia for its act of aggression and strengthens every aspect of deterrence. It ignores the fact that costs of such aid are low in grand strategic terms, and seem likely to be far lower than the cumulative cost of the fighting to save an Afghan government that never began to approach the Ukraine’s unity and national commitment to defend itself.

It not only ignores the moral and ethical commitment the U.S. should have to every other free nation, but it also ignores the fact that Russia is far poorer than the U.S. and its allies. It ignores the fact that Russia is already paying far more of its Gross National Product and economy to fight the war in the Ukraine than the U.S. and its partners, and that Russia has suffered massive losses of weapons, war reserves, and military personnel.

As is discussed in detail later in this analysis, U.S. aid has so far enabled Ukraine to do immense damage to Russia’s overall capability to threaten Europe and to fight any future conflict.

It ignores the practical benefits of the message that sending such aid to the Ukraine has sent to our strategic partners and allies about American capability and resolve. It ignores the extent to which such aid has put practical limits on Putin’s ambitions to restore a greater Russia, and shown other states that they can trust the U.S. to compete with China. It ignores the extent to which such aid helps to rebuild and strengthen the role America plays as the de facto leader of the West and other democratic states. It ignores the degree to which it has revitalized NATO and European defense effort.

It ignores role that the key allies like Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Poland, other NATO and EU states – and nations outside of Europe like Japan – are also playing in providing aid to the Ukraine. It also ignores the relative economic cost to such nations in providing such aid and joining with the U.S. in sanctioning Russia. While the level of aid from other states has been much lower than the levels of U.S. aid, most of our European and partners and allies are suffering far more from the economic consequences of their support for Ukraine and rise in global energy costs than Americans. While inflation in the U.S reached 7.7% in November 2022, it reached 11.1% in the United Kingdom, 11.6% in Germany, and 14.3% in the Netherlands. 3

Equally important is that it ignores the changes in Russian strategy that now combined defense in depth with a massive series of strikes on the economy and civilian infrastructure of Ukraine. It ignores the all-too-real limits of Ukraine’s military victories, its many vulnerabilities, and the fact that Russia in now fighting a brutal war of attrition against both civilian and military targets and that Ukraine can only continue fighting with major U.S. aid.

It ignores the fact that the planning of U.S. aid must be tied directly to the search for a viable peace settlement, and that there is no practical chance that such a peace can be won on terms that are acceptable to Ukraine without making a lasting commitment to support Ukraine until Russia is forced to accept such a settlement. It ignores the need to work with the Ukraine and other aid donors to agree on what such a peace should be, to coordinate efforts to pressure Russia into accepting peace terms acceptable to Ukraine and reach a common agreement with Ukraine as to what peace terms will be acceptable.

The Challenge of Future Aid Needs

This does not mean that the cost of continuing U.S. aid until the war is ended on terms that favor Ukraine will not be high, or that further aid will not be needed to help the Ukraine recover from the war and maintain the forces it needs to deter Russia, It does not mean the cost of aid should not be continuously examined, and that the need to plan and manage such aid as effectively as possible is not a serious issue.

Ukraine will probably need years of future support, and the U.S. has already budgeted major amounts of money. The Congress authorized some $53 billion in military and civil aid by May 2022, with a $13.6 billion initial vote for in emergency aid for the war, followed by $40 billion in military and civil aid in May 10, 2022. 4

There is no clear official reporting on the total flow of total aid authorizations and actual spending to date, but the U.S. has stated that it had already came close to spending $20 billion in military assistance alone by mid-November 2030. Secretary of Defense Austin announced that the U.S had spent $18.6 billion in military aid. The State Department reported that it had spent some $10 billion more on civilian aid as of mid-November 2020. 5 It is also clear that America’s strategic partners, and other nations, have provided billions of dollars in additional aid.

Billions of dollars do matter – and come at the cost of alternative uses of the money – although one needs to be a little cautious about tying such costs to the overall rate of inflation and the health of the American economy. The U.S. national security budget is well in excess of $800 billion – including nuclear weapons and security assistance. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the total U.S. federal budget will make outlays reaching $5,872 billion in FY2023, of $4,795 billion is on budget. 6

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) estimated that the U.S. economy was still growing steadily as of October 2022 – along with personal income – and was estimated to have reached $25.66 trillion in current dollars. 7 At least to date, aid to Ukraine had only a negligible impact on both total federal spending and the U.S. economy.

The Shape of Costs to Come

The costs to date, however, are only part of the story and Ukraine can only succeed and survive as a functioning state if the U.S. provides continuing military and civil assistance as long as Russia pursues the war. Aid to help Ukraine bear that the cost of the fighting must also be followed by U.S. aid to help Ukraine recover.

The cost of such recovery is going to be high and it is steadily rising as Russia launches more and more attacks on Ukrainian civilian facilities and its critical infrastructure. Even in September 2013 – before the full Russian assault on the civil economy and infrastructure of Ukraine had begun, estimates were being issued that rebuilding the Ukraine’s economy, infrastructure, and civil facilities could cost some $349 billion. This figure now seems far too low in light of Russia’s steadily escalating attacks on the Ukraine’s entire civil and economic infrastructure. 8

Any estimates of the overall civil and military costs of the war to Ukraine by the time any kind of peace or settlement is reached are highly uncertain. There are no reliable ways to estimate the future cost of the fighting. Worse, Russia’s steady escalation of its strikes on civilian targets in Ukraine have already made it clear that the cost of supporting both the war and recovery will steadily rise until there is some form of settlement or ceasefire.

Bleeding the Ukrainian Economy and Resistance to Death?

Any argument for continuing aid must recognize the fact that the cost of aid could rise sharply, could exceed the past levels of wartime and other emergency aid, and that the U.S. and all of its strategic partners will find it painful to pay them. It must recognize that the U.S. and its partners do face major internal economic problems with inflation, civil needs, energy supplies, medical needs like COVID, and dealing with climate change.

It must also recognize that the U.S. and its partners also face competing national security needs in dealing with security challenges from China, Iran, North Korea, and terrorism. These challenges include the growth of China’s nuclear and conventional forces, the separate threat posed by Russian nuclear modernization, and the need to respond to the near-collapse of many existing arms control agreements and efforts.

At the same time, those who oppose continuing aid must recognize that demanding that Ukraine pay more for its own defense is simply ludicrous. Ukraine has already depleted its financial reserves, exhausted much of its borrowing capacity, and its economy has been steadily more crippled and made it steadily harder for Ukraine to keep funding even the operational costs of the war.

In practice, Ukraine cannot continue to fight and to recover without continuing aid from the U.S. and other powers. Moreover, if the war drags on as it well may do, the total costs of both the war and recovery states could easily rise well over $500 billion. A truly long war could put the total cost of the war and recovery to a trillion dollars or more

The Strategic Benefits Aid to Ukraine Provides to the U.S.

This does not mean that there are no limits to what the U.S. can and should do. The U.S. cannot police or heal the world, of provide Ukraine with unlimited support. The U.S. cannot fund every need or allocate funds without regard to its own national interests. It must allocate its limited aid funds and efforts according to their strategic value to the U.S. and how effectively the money will be used. But it must also consider the cost of not providing aid, and the probable end result, and the grand strategic benefits of continuing to provide such aid.

The U.S. must exercise strategic triage. It must spend where this is clearly in its national interest, and Ukraine is a key case in point. U.S. aid to Ukraine is still probably the most cost-effective investment the U.S. and its strategic partners have recently made in national security, and an investment whose benefits will still outweigh its costs.

Ensuring that Ukraine Could Survive

The cost of failing to provide continuing aid is brutally clear. To put these benefits into perspective, Ukraine only survived the initial Russian attack because of the past flow of aid, extensive and detailed warnings from U.S., British, and other intelligence sources, and the early aid efforts of the U.S. and its partner nations. As the relative force numbers in the Russian-Ukrainian military balance in Figure One help illustrate, there is no way that Ukraine could have defeated a force as large as Russia without the aid Ukraine received in the period before the Russian invasion began

It could not have survived the initial Russian onslaught and then won major victories without the massive flow of U.S. and allied aid that followed as the war progressed. Ukraine certainly emerged as a highly effective force, and one that operated with exceptional skill and courage, but outside aid was critical to sustaining its operations, giving it a decisive edge in intelligence, target, and communications, and allowing it to operate without fear it would exhaust its supplies.

Without such aid through every month of the war to date, and a decisive early U.S. decision to fully support its allies in NATO, and to make its political commitment to support Ukraine so clear, the end result might well have been an initial Russian victory in spite of all the Russian military failings that have now become clear. Without continuing U.S. aid and the same firm political commitment to the Ukraine, it also could also have been a war of attrition that Ukraine lost rather than won.

Maintaining and Increasing Trust in U.S. Leadership and the Confidence of Strategic Partners and Allies

In contrast, if the U.S. had not provided an initial flood of aid to Ukraine, and then continued to provide additional aid in response to Russian escalation, this would probably have created a Europe that lost much of its confidence in U.S. guarantees and extended deterrence. It would have been a world where economic sanctions against Russia, and cuts in Russian gas exports, would not have been initiated or sustained.

It is doubtful that Sweden and Finland would have applied to join a weak and indecisive NATO. Quite possibly, Russia would have acted on other ambitions like putting new levels of pressure on the Baltic states, exploiting its enclave in Kaliningrad, and taking full military control of Belarus and Moldova. Failing to provide aid would have sent a message to nations in Asia and the Middle East that they could not count on U.S. aid. In short, any U.S. failure to provide massive continuing aid after the Russian invasion began would have been the equivalent of a proxy war that the United States had decisively lost in spite of all its military strength.

Gaining Immense Strategic Leverage

In contrast, U.S. and allied military aid was provided and the West mobilized to put intense economic and diplomatic pressure on Russia to end the war. This allowed a far smaller Ukraine to defeat Russian efforts to seize most or all of the Ukraine, then allowed Ukraine to counter a massive Russian shift to artillery and missile attacks on both the Ukrainian forces and its civil infrastructure, and also allowed it to play a key role in helping Ukraine support its population through months of grueling fighting.

Russia did begin began the war with far more military and financial resources than Ukraine. The Russian GDP was $1,775 billion in current dollars in 2021, or some nine times larger than $201 billion for Ukraine. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Russia also spent $62.2 billion on defense in 2021, or 14 times the $4.35 billion spent by Ukraine. 9

In practical terms, however, the aid the U.S. and allied nations have provided to Ukraine – coupled to the sanctions and diplomatic pressure they have put on Russia’s economy – have imposed immense costs on a Russia that can scarcely afford the war it now has had to fight. Russia was scarcely an economic or resource-rich military superpower before the war began and the U.S. and its allies could draw upon far larger economic resources.

U.S aid has meant that Russia has had to fight with a prewar GDP that compares with a current U.S. GDP of $22,966 billion in current dollars and is thirteen times larger. And Russia’s prewar military development had to compete with a U.S. defense budget of $811 billon, which is 13 times larger than the Russian defense budget. Equally important, U.S. leadership in creating sanctions against Russia’s economy and energy exports has forced Russia to fight an open-ended war in the face of major losses of its export income, and critical limits to the imports it needs for its military forces and economy.

Accordingly, while U.S. aid to Ukraine has scarcely been cheap, U.S. spending has been at token levels compared to the economic burden that the cost of the Ukraine war and economic sanctions have placed on Russia. Once aid spending is put in the context of American economic strength and leverage, it allows the U.S. to exert immense strategic leverage on Russia at a minimal cost to the U.S. and in ways that U.S. spending on military forces – vital as it is to U.S. security -- cannot match.

Moreover, these numbers do not take account of the fact that America’s strategic partners have played a critical role in aiding Ukraine and putting economic pressure on Russia. NATO Europe added another $361 billion to the total of Western defense spending in 2021. While the comparability of Russian defense spending data to the data on the U.S. and the rest of NATO is uncertain, the data now available from the IISS and NATO indicate that total NATO defense spending is some 19 times larger than Russian spending.

Comparisons of Russian and Western GDPs are equally uncertain, but some estimates of the total GDP of NATO were at least $32 trillion at the end of 2021, or some 45% of the global economy or more than 18 times that of Russia. Some estimates go as high as $37 billion, or 21 times the size of Russia. Providing aid to Ukraine effectively has forced Russia to fight a proxy war in which both the U.S. and Europe could exploit the fact they have a massive strategic advantage in both defense spending and total economic resources. 10

Major Military and NATO Alliance Benefits

The U.S. investment in aid to Ukraine, and Ukrainian military success has had many other grand strategic benefits. The Ukraine’s military successes have exposed Russia’s many military weaknesses, gave the U.S. and NATO a priceless insight into Russia’s limits and vulnerabilities, led Sweden and Finland to apply to join NATO, and led many NATO states – including key cases Germany – to announce plans to revitalize their forces in ways where a decade of NATO efforts to persuade them to spend 2% of their GDP on defense failed to accomplish.

Moreover, the U.S. support of Ukraine did more than show NATO and other partners that alliances can really work. It provided priceless practical military and diplomatic experience in improving the structure of the NATO alliance, and in showing the U.S. how to cooperate with partners in modern warfare vs. counterterrorism and wars like Afghanistan. As many of Russia’s failures in the Ukraine War show, this kind of practical experience is critical in modernizing combat forces and the entire military structure of U.S. and allied forces, and the Russian lack of such experience was a critical reason for many of its defeats.

Nothing else the U.S. could have done – or spent defense and aid funds upon – could have been as productive in ensuring the security of the United States against one of the two major powers that could threaten the U.S. as well as its partners and allies. Nothing the U.S. can do in the future will be as productive in showing allies and partners that collective efforts to defend can secure Europe and the Atlantic, and help rebuild strategic confidence and trust in the U.S.

The Costs to the U.S. of Not Continuing to Meet the Ukraine’s Aid Needs

These benefits do, however, depend on Ukraine surviving and the current war and winning an acceptable peace settlement. They depend upon the U.S. to continue to aid Ukraine as long as it can provide for its own defense, on helping Ukraine to both continue to fight and to meet the civilian needs of its people, and then helping it to recover. Ukraine can still lose the war it has so far won, and these strategic benefits could be rapidly reversed the moment the U.S ceased to provide continuing aid.

It is all too easy sit safely in the U.S. and make political statements about suddenly ending aid to Ukraine, and demand that a war-exhausted nation somehow pay for its own defense and the civilian costs of the fighting. The reality, however, is that the impact on global perception of the United States, its practical strength in competing with Russia and China, and the trust America’s allies and strategic partners put in the U.S. would all suffer devastating damage.

Quite from the moral and ethical nature of abandoning a democracy of more than 43 million people who did nothing to provoke a Russian attack, it is hard to believe that any current strategic partner or ally would then fully trust the United States. The result would sharply undermine NATO, and for all the occasional European rhetoric about a European defense of Europe, there is no indication that Europe can actually achieve the level of unity and military strength and effectiveness required without dependence on the U.S. and trust in its willing to aid Europe in a war.

Other European allies like Britain and allies in other regions like in Asia and in the Middle East might continue to try to work with the U.S., but no partner nation could be expected to fully rely on the U.S. The countries in the forward areas near the Russian border would become far more vulnerable to Russian pressure, and vulnerable states far more reluctant to resist Chinese pressure. Somewhat ironically, the U.S. might as well have to spend several percent more of its GDP on its own military forces to compensate – effectively paying the same amount on national security to suffer a major grand strategic defeat as it would have to pay to win.

Providing Aid in A War with No Clear End

In short, the current challenge is how to best provide continuing U.S. aid in a war where there are no clear limits to its length and level of escalation, or to the cost of the Ukraine’s postwar recovery. And here, moving towards a viable peace settlement is critical to both Ukraine’s survival and limiting the cumulative cost of aid.

Fighting On Through the Winter and Beyond: Russian escalation versus the Search for Peace

This makes both continuing aid and agreeing on the terms of peace a critical aspect of controlling the total cost of aid, and it currently is unclear as to whether either Russia or Ukraine are ready to seriously negotiate a peace on terms acceptable to the other side. If anything, Russia seems far more committed to escalation than any search for a practical peace.

Putin has made some limited withdrawals from the territory Russia conquered early in the war, but winter has arrived. Russia now seems to be calculating that weather and a constant barrage of missile attacks will cripple the Ukrainian military ability to stay on the offensive and will destroy enough of its civil infrastructure to undermine popular support for the war, while the U.S. and European countries may cut back on the aid Ukraine needs to survive. It seems to be calculating that this can cripple the Ukrainian economy and either reverse the course of the war or force Zelensky to accept the loss of enough territory, to claim victory.

Russia may have – or be able to obtain – enough strike systems to pursue such a strategy. While some experts felt that Russia faced serous limits to its number of long-range missiles as early as the spring of 2022, Russia was firing as many as 96 longer-range missiles per day by the third week of November and had destroyed nearly half of Ukraine’s energy system, as well as major port, shipping, rail and transport, water, and other civilian facilities. 11

Russia has also shown in can adapt a variety of older missile systems like the S300 surface-to-air missile to attack Ukrainian targets. It may obtain missile component from North Korea, and it certainly is obtaining systems from Iran. according to press reports, Iran and Russia also agreed to create missile production facilities in Russia in late-November that would allow Russia to produce large numbers of cheaper cruise missiles to use in attacking civilian and military targets in the Ukraine. There is also growing evidence that Iran has already sold large numbers of such ballistic missile systems, cruise missiles, and drones like the Fateh 110, Zolfaghar, Mohajer 6, Shahed 131, and Shahed 126 to Russia 12

At the same time, Russian forces are now digging in to create multiple lines of deep defense within Ukraine and are now deployed near major river barriers like the one near Kherson, or in well-chosen terrain. Russia also continues to deploy more troops to new defensive lines in Ukraine. Many seem to be rushed forward without adequate training, weapons, and command structure, but some do include more elite Russian forces, and there are some indications that while a large portion of the troops that have been rapidly mobilized are not properly prepared, other may be receiving far more adequate training and preparation to deploy forward later in the year after winter has fully taken hold. 13

General Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff, provided a detailed official U.S. military picture of these changes in Russia’s strategy in a news conference on October 16, 2022. He stressed his belief that the Ukraine could defend as long it received the necessary U.S. and allied military and civil aid bur warned that Russia changes in strategy and tactics were exploiting the Ukraine’s weaknesses and were likely to limit the Ukrainian ability to win a decisive victory: 14

This is a war of choice -- it's a war of choice for Russia. They embarked on a tremendous strategic mistake. They made a choice in February of this year to illegally invade a country that posed no threat to Russia. In making that choice, Russia established several objectives. They wanted to overthrow President Zelenskyy and his government. They wanted to secure access to the Black Sea. They wanted to capture Odessa. They wanted to seize all the way to the Dnipro River, pause, and then continue to attack all the way to the Carpathian Mountains.

In short, they wanted to overrun all of Ukraine, and they lost. They didn't achieve those objectives. They failed to achieve their strategic objectives and they are now failing to achieve their operational and tactical objectives.

Russia changed their war aims in March and beginning of April. Their war of choice then focused on the seizure of the Donbas, the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. That was their operational objectives and they failed there. Then they changed again and expanded to seize Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.

The strategic reframing of their objectives, of their illegal invasion have all failed, every single one of them. And we've just witnessed last week Russia's retreat from Kherson. They retreated across the Dnipro River, they moved to more defensible positions south of the river. Their losses due to Ukrainian success and skill and bravery on the battlefield have been very, very significant.

And it's clear that the Russian will to fight does not match the Ukrainian will to fight. On the battlefield, Ukrainians' offensive up in Kharkiv has been very successful, where they crossed the Oskil River and they have moved to the east and are near the town of Svatove.

There is a significant ongoing fight down in Bakhmut right now and in the vicinity of Siversk and Soledar, where the Ukrainians are fighting a very, very successful mobile defense. There is limited contact right now in Zaporizhzhia and limited contact in and around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. And as we already discussed, Kherson's offensive has already been successful.

So across the entire front line trace of some 900 or so kilometers, the Ukrainians have achieved success after success after success and the Russians have failed every single time. They've lost strategically, they've lost operationally, and I repeat, they lost tactically.

What they've tried to do, they failed at. They started this war and Russia can end this war. Russia can make another choice, and they could make a choice today, to end this war. However, Russia is choosing to use their time to attempt to regroup their forces and they are imposing a campaign of terror, a campaign of maximum suffering on the Ukrainian civilian population in order to defeat Ukrainian morale.

The Russians are striking throughout the depth and breadth of all of Ukraine with air-launched cruise missiles, with Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles, and with other types of munitions. They are striking the Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, and it has little or no military purpose.

While assessments are ongoing, yesterday's strikes looked like they launched at least 60 missiles and they may have launched upwards of 90 or even perhaps 100, and we'll have better assessments in the days ahead. But it was likely the largest wave of missiles that we've seen since the beginning of the war.

These missiles, again, they targeted intentionally and damaged civilian power generation facilities to cause unnecessary suffering with the civilian population. We assess now that over a quarter of Ukrainian civilians are without power.

The deliberate targeting of the civilian power grid, causing excessive collateral damage and unnecessary suffering on the civilian population, is a war crime. With the onset of winter, families will be without power, and more importantly, without heat. Basic human survival and subsistence is going to be severely impacted and human suffering for the Ukrainian population is going to increase.

These strikes will undoubtedly hinder Ukraine's ability to care for the sick and the elderly. Their hospitals will be partially operational. The elderly are going to be exposed to the elements. In the wake of unrelenting Russian aggression and incalculable human suffering, Ukraine will continue to endure. Ukraine is not going to back down. The Ukrainian people are hard, they are tough, and most of all, they're free and they want to remain free.

Ukraine is going to continue to take the fight to the Russians. And I just had a significant conversation with my Ukrainian counterpart and he assures me that that is the future for Ukraine.

As Ukraine continues to fight, air defense capabilities are becoming critical for their future success. An integrated system -- an integrated air defense system, an integrated air and missile defense system, is what is necessary as Ukraine repels Russian aerial attacks.

And a significant portion of today's conversations in today's meeting with almost 50 countries focused on how we, as a global coalition, can provide the right mix of air defense systems and ammunition for Ukraine to continue its control of the skies and prevent the Russians from achieving air superiority.

To combat continued Russian strikes, last Thursday, the United States announced $400 million in additional commitments to support Ukraine, and those capabilities included missiles for the HAWK air defense systems, which is a complement to what Spain has recently committed. There's other air defense systems included in that $400 million package, along with ground systems such as up-armored Humvees, grenade launchers and additional HIMARS ammunition and lots of other pieces of equipment.

Wars are not fought by armies; they're fought by nations. This war is fought by the Ukrainian people, and it's fought by the Russian people, and this is a war that Russia's leadership has chosen to put Russia into. They didn't have to do this, but they did, and they have violated Ukrainian sovereignty and they violated territorial integrity of Ukraine. It is in complete contradiction to the basic rules that underlined the United Nations Charter established at the end of World War II. This is one of the most significant attempts to destroy the rules-based order that World War II was fought all about, and we, the United States are determined to continue to support Ukraine with the means to defend themselves for as long as it takes.

But at the end of the day, Ukraine will retain -- will remain a free and independent country with its territory intact. Russia could end this war today. Russia could put an end to it right now, but they won't. They're going to continue that fight. They're going to continue that fight into the winter as best we can tell, and we, the United States, on the direction of the president and the secretary of defense, we will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes to keep them free, sovereign, independent with their territory intact.

The president of the United States has been very, very clear to us: that it's up to Ukraine to decide how and when or if they negotiate with the Russians, and we will continue to support them as long as it takes. The United States will continue to support Ukraine with the best possible equipment to position them on the battlefield to give them positions of strength against the Russians, and that is also true of all the other nations that attended the meeting today. There is an absolute sense of urgency, an absolute sense of determination on the part of all of the member states that attended our meeting today, and I can tell you, the cohesion and coherence of the organization is complete and the resolve is high.

Ukrainians are not asking for anyone to fight for them. They don't want American soldiers, or British, or German, or French, or anybody else to fight for them. They will fight for themselves. All Ukraine is asking for is the means to fight, and we are determined to provide that means. Ukrainians will do this on their timeline, and until then, we will continue to support all the way for as long as it takes.

… And right now, what we're seeing is the lines from Kharkiv all the way down to Kherson, for the most part, are beginning to stabilize. Now, whether that means they will be stable throughout the winter or not, nobody knows -- nobody knows for certain. Come January, February, that ground probably will freeze, which could lend itself to offensive operations.

So there could be a lot of activity in the winter, but typically speaking, because of the weather, the tactical operations will slow down a bit. And I think that, you know, President Biden and President Zelenskyy himself has said that there'll be a -- at the end of the day, there'll be a political solution.

So if there's a slowdown in the actual tactical fighting, if that happens, then that may become a window possibly -- it may not -- for a political solution or a -- at least the beginnings of talks to initiate a political solution. So that's all I was saying.

… Ukraine's a pretty big country. It -- this is not a small piece of turf. And the probability of Russia achieving its strategic objectives of conquering Ukraine, of overrunning Ukraine, the probability of that happening is close to zero. I can suppose theoretically it's possible, maybe, I guess, but I don't see it happening, militarily. So I just don't see that happening.

But they do currently occupy about 20 percent of that -- of Ukraine. So they occupy a piece of ground that's about 900 kilometers long and, I don't know, probably about 75 or 80 kilometers deep. So it's not a small piece of ground.

And they invaded this country with upwards of 170, 180,000 troops in multiple field armies, combined arms armies, and they have suffered a tremendous amount of casualties, but he's also done this mobilization and called up additional people. So the Russians have reinforced and they have -- they still have significant Russian combat power inside Ukraine.

Now, Ukraine's had great success in the defense. They did a tremendous job in defeating the Russian offensive. It's incredible what they were able to do. And then they went on the offensive at the beginning of September and they had great success up in Kharkiv and they've had better success even down in Kherson, as you just witnessed.

But Kherson and Kharkiv, physically, geographically, are relatively small compared to the whole, so that that -- the military task of militarily kicking the Russians physically out of Ukraine is a very difficult task. And it's not going to happen in the next couple of weeks unless the Russian army completely collapses, which is unlikely.

So, in terms of probability, the probability of a Ukrainian military victory defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine to include what they define or what the claim is Crimea, the probability of that happening anytime soon is not high, militarily. Politically, there may be a political solution where, politically, the Russians withdraw, that's possible. You want to negotiate from a position of strength. Russia right now is on its back.

The Russian military is suffering tremendously. Leaders have been, you know, their leadership is really hurting bad. They've lost a lot of causalities, killed and wounded. They've lost -- I won't go over exact numbers because they're classified, but they've lost a tremendous amount of their tanks and their infantry fighting vehicles. They've lost a lot of their fourth and fifth-generation fighters and helicopters and so on and so forth.

The Russian military is really hurting bad. So, you want to negotiate at a time when you're at your strength and your opponent is at weakness. And it's possible, maybe that there'll be a political solution. All I'm -- all I'm saying is there's a possibility for it.

… And in terms of how long Russia can sustain their effort, that's left to be seen. I think the Chairman just gave a very accurate and compelling description of kind of where the Russians are right now. They're -- they have some problems. They've had problems since the very beginning of this, trying to sustain their efforts. Those problems have only become more acute. They've lost a lot of people. And as important, they've lost a lot of important military gear. So, the numbers of tanks that they've lost, the numbers of armored personnel carriers, pretty staggering numbers.

As important, the numbers of precision guided munitions that they've rifled through in this endeavor is striking. But, they won't be able to reproduce those munitions very quickly, because there are trade restrictions on their -- that have prevented them from rapidly gaining microchips and other things that required to produce these kinds of munitions. And so, it may take years for them to restock that inventory up to the point that they were before they started this conflict.

We've seen them struggle with having enough munitions to fight the way that they want to fight, so they're reaching out to Iran, they're reaching out to North Korea. I do think that those countries will probably provide them some capability.

And so for that reason I don't think this will be over anytime soon. Our -- you know our goal, our requirement is to make sure that we continue to provide Ukraine with the means to do what's necessary to prosecute their campaign.

And so they have to continue to keep the pressure on the Russians going forward. And I think winter fight favors the Ukrainians.

We pushed, you know, enormous amounts of winter gear into Ukraine, thanks to countries like Canada and others who have really been very, very generous. Russia on the other hand, I mean they're fighting in a foreign country. Ukrainians have challenged their supply lines.

It will be difficult for them to get the kinds of gear in to their troops that they need to be able to fight effectively. And so I think the Ukrainians will have the upper hand in this fight as they have right now but that they'll continue to maintain that upper hand going into the winter.

Just like we saw them operate in February of last year, they know the land, they can -- they can pull things from their local communities and they'll be prepared for this -- for this winter weather. And I don't think that the Russians will be as prepared and they'll continue to struggle to get things into their troops using the supply lines that they currently have.

And the Ukrainians will continue to pressure those supply lines there.

These changes in Russian strategy virtually ensure that Putin must be carefully watching the political status U.S. and Ukraine’s other sources of aid and feel that prolonging the war and the cost of aid will eventually deprive the Ukraine of enough aid to keep fighting. Targeting civilian infrastructure, residences, governance, and political targets also has the benefit that they cannot move, and that sophisticated targeting intelligence is not needed. “Terror” is hard to impose on dedicated military forces like Ukraine’s, but exhausting, intimidating, and weakening civilian is a different story.

They also warn that the leaders of Ukraine may initially have over-estimated the importance its victories and Ukraine’s military and civil strength. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, initially demanded total Russian withdrawal, compensation for all of the damage done, and punishment of all war criminals. These demanding terms may have been a negotiating or morale-building ploy, but Putin clearly was not willing to accept any of them at the time, and his escalation to a missile war on civilian targets scarcely indicates that he is willing to accept them now neither.

Enhancing the Prospects for a Viable of Peace

That said, both sides do have reasons to compromise on a peace settlement if the U.S. continues the flow of aid Ukraine needs. Putin has clearly chosen to limit Russian offensive attacks on the ground and has even sacrificed some territory. An open-ended war does seem to be developing some degree of popular opposition and has to be extremely costly to the entire Russian economy and the capacity to modernize and create more effective military forces. Major Russian casualties have to have some political impact, and openly fighting a war against Ukrainian civilians has its political and strategic costs in dealing with the rest of the world.

It also seems clear that the Biden Administration has quietly pressed Zelensky to accept some form of peace or ceasefire that does not necessarily involve returning all the areas lost since the February invasion, makes no Russian concessions regarding the return of the territory lost in 2014, and does not involve Russian reparations and any war crimes trials. Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national-security adviser, has been reported to have had talks take such position with several Russian official in the fall of 2022. 15

Key non-partisan voices like General Milley, have also advocated a similar approach. Milley has made it clear that he does not feel that Ukraine can totally defeat Russia on the battlefield, or drive Russia completely out of Ukraine. He is reported to have said that Ukraine should use the winter – and its recent victories – to negotiate a pragmatic peace settlement, although he was careful to stipulate that the U.S. should “continue to support Ukraine as long as it takes to keep them free” and that Ukraine should “decide how or when or if they will negotiate with the Russians.” 16

Ukraine’s position also seems to have shifted in response – at least publicly. Zelensky stated in early November that he then sought an end to the war with “genuine peace talks,” and one based on three conditions: “stopping Russian aggression, restoring our territorial integrity and forcing Russia into genuine peace talks.” 17This position offers more hope of success than his early position. Zelensky then demanded total withdrawal, compensation for all of the damage done to the Ukraine, and punishment of all war criminals.

At the same time the volatility of the war – and the fact it could escalate unpredictably at any time – is indicated by the fact that when what seems to have been a Ukrainian air defense missile killed two Poles on Polish territory on November 16th, NATO initially had to consider what would have happened if Russia had escalated to attacking NATO territory and possibly having to act on Article 5. It later seemed clear that the missile that had hit Poland was a Ukrainian S300 surface-to-air missile that had a malfunction, but the incident was an all too clear warning of how uncertain the future course of the war was becoming. 18

Given the fact that Russia had fired as many as 88 missiles against Ukrainian civil targets on the same day that the Ukrainian missile had hit Poland, and nearly 100 missiles per day on some days since that time, the future level of escalation had become steadily more unpredictable as was the future course of the war. Moreover, Putin had already claimed that Ukraine was considering the use of “dirty” radiological weapons and mentioned possible escalation to tactical nuclear weapons – although without any indication of a real Russian intent to use them. 19

In short, any positive signs still have severe limits, and the U.S. must be prepared to both increase its levels of aid and give Ukraine more lethal and more advanced defensive systems. As of late November, there was no credible way, as war set in, to predict that the level of conflict could be reduced, or that the civilian and military costs to Ukraine would drop. It was also all too clear that the Ukraine would probably not survive the loss of U.S. aid. There also did not seem to be any near-term prospects that this situation would change.

Controlling the Future Cost of Aid

One thing is clear. The key to dealing with the cost of U.S. military and civil aid to Ukraine is not to eliminate U.S. aid that is critical to Ukraine’s survival and recovery. Such an act would not be an act of strategic triage like leaving a distant Afghanistan that could not govern itself or perform a fair share of the fight. Ending U.S. aid, or cutting it to ineffective levels, would be an act of gross strategic stupidity, effectively snatch defeat from the jaws of a considerable victory, do immense damage to America’s role as a leader of the free world, and betray the principles on which the United States is based.

Continuing aid also should not be a partisan issue. Democrats need to accept the fact that some sacrifices will have to be made in civil spending to meet a vital U.S. national security need, and that undermining such an effort is far too likely to create a world where the U.S. ultimately has to pay far more for security and make much larger sacrifices in civilian spending.

Republicans should also remember the value of bipartisan national security efforts since the end of World War II, and the leadership of Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Regan, Bush, and McCain played in calling for such aid—as well as the non-partisan security efforts of many key Republican leaders and members of the Senate and the House. The U.S. does not exist in a world where it can export the burden of leadership or divide around some form of neo-isolationism.

Pursuing Both the Right Kind of War and the Right Search for Peace

At the same time, U.S. aid should not be open ended or be provided in the form of a blank check. The need to balance U.S. national security spending and spending on domestic needs is all too real. The proper position the U.S. should seek is to meet Ukrainian critical needs while pursuing the kind of peace that General Milley had recommended. This is a path where there is no current indication that the cost of U.S. aid would reach levels that would make it impossible to fund effective military and civilian programs unless the Ukraine War escalated far beyond the boundaries of the Ukraine.

It is also critical to remember that the West is supporting Ukraine by reaching the equivalent of economic warfare against Russia. Economic sanctions, controlling on the levels and technologies involved in trade, and taking measures to limit European dependence on energy exports are all ways of cutting the costs of aid and pushing Russia into some form of viable peace agreement. They also are area where the U.S. and its partners can escalate to cut the cost of aid to the Ukraine without sacrificing the Ukraine in the process. Economic warfare alone cannot defeat Russia or force it to negotiate. It is not a substitute for effective levels of aid, but it is a powerful weapon in pushing Russia towards peace, and natural partner to U.S. and allied aid.

In practical terms, this means the U.S. may already be on the best course. Ukraine may already have won as much of an overall victory as it can. The best outcome for Ukraine does not seem to be to fight for the kind of total victory in recovering its lost territory that Zelensky initially called for, but rather to negotiate an end to the fighting and the growing level of damage to the Ukraine’s economy even if this does mean some Russian territorial gains, no Russian reparations, and no war crimes trials.

Unfortunately, Putin may have no interest in such a peace until it is clear that Ukraine will continue to get U.S. aid until such a settlement is reached, or until it is clear he cannot defeat Ukraine by destroying civilian targets or by trying to deploy more military force. There seems to be no current prospect Russia would agree to any broader withdrawal from the Ukrainian territory it seized in 2014, to any serious form of economic compensation, or any meaningful war crimes trials. There also seems to be little prospect that any real peace can be reached without the kind compromises that Milley has suggested.

At the same time, continued U.S. and other Western support must be convincing enough to convince Putin that any Ukrainian territorial concessions would have to be limited, a settlement could not weaken Ukraine’s future capability to defend, and a settlement would have to have enough credibility as a lasting solution to creating a true peace rather than some pause in the fighting that Russia could exploit in the future.

Managing Military and Civil Aid Effectively

Given the fact that there is no predictable way to force an end to the fighting, planning, and managing aid in the most coordinated and effective way possible is the best immediate way to controlling its cost. The West and Ukraine have already done well in improvising. They now need to show that they can make aid as effective as possible while limiting its cost.

Given the shift in the war to attacks on Ukraine’s civilians and civil infrastructure, the U.S. should expend its current efforts at cooperation the build such a planning and management effort and make current wartime flow of civil aid cost-effective as soon as possible. It should expand current efforts to develop the kind of longer-term post conflict planning that is really needed. Any realistic peace settlement will depend upon the existence of a functional and credible form of Western recovery aid to Ukraine – one where the U.S. will almost certainly have to pay a major share.

Past experiences warns that this will require an ongoing management effort with demanding controls of corruption and cost-effectiveness, and a postwar planning effort that will link the Ukraine to the EU and the economy of Europe in ways that would allow it to export without the same dependence on naval routes that Russia might challenge or interdict

A similar military structure – perhaps led by NATO, but one that includes all major donors of military aid – is equally necessary. The Ukrainian Defense Contact Group already sets the precedent for such an effort, and better coordinated and managed military aid efforts can limit costs to some degree. At the same time, such an effort will have to deal with the unpredictability of war. As is the case with civil aid, no such structure can have a stable plan during the actual fighting and having as sound and coordinated a structure for military aid will be equally critical.

These efforts will need to be coordinated with ongoing joint Western efforts to manage war-related sanctions and other forms of economic warfare against Russia. The issue is not simply aid but exploiting Russia’s vulnerabilities with efforts like permanently reducing European dependence on Russian gas and oil. The U.S. will also have to work closely with NATO European states to modernize NATO’s defenses and make its forces more effective and as a more effective deterrent.

The end result will not be easy nor cheap. Creating such international bodies to plan and manage the civil and military aid efforts, with representation from a full range of donors, would limit the future flow of aid to some extent, but might well mean years of future support. Any other course of action would leave Ukraine far too weak to offer any clear hope of stability and undermine many of the gains the U.S. has made in working with its NATO allies and creating a more effective deterrent to Russia.

Giving conflict termination the same priority as war fighting is also critical The U.S. can encourage some limited Ukrainian territorial concessions, but it faces the risk that all the strategic gains the war has so far made would be lost if Russia scored any kind of victory or if the Ukraine and NATO did not emerge from the war with the proper degree of military security.

Again, it must also be stressed that the U.S. also cannot push Ukraine too far in making compromises to obtain an end to the fighting or cut aid to the extent that it effectively abandons it. Putin’s Russia may well be unwilling to accept anything but the equivalent of victory in any peace negotiation until it is totally clear that aid to Ukraine will continue and Russia will face massive further expenditures and losses.

The U.S. must also fully accept the risk that it may well have to suddenly surge more aid depending on the course of the fighting and on the levels of escalation that develop in the months to come. In any case, the U.S. must accept the fact that the cost of U.S. aid will remain high as long as the war continues and during the peace years of Ukraine’s postwar recovery.

The compensation for accepting this burden, however, will be that military and the economic burden placed on Russia will be far higher and the risk to Putin of rejecting a real peace would be growing international hostility. The end result is that the flow of aid would remain a proxy war where the U.S. continues to receive major strategic gains by weakening one of its two major threats and keeps sending a clear message about U.S. resolve to China. It would be a situation where Putin have turned the Russian effort to continue the war into even more of a self-inflicted wound.

Figure One: Ukraine Military Balance in Late 2021: Part One

Figure One: Ukraine Military Balance in Late 2021: Part Two

1Missy Ryan & Yasmeen Abutaleb, “With GOP House win, Biden faces added curbs on foreign policy,” Washington Post, November 17 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/11/17/house-republicans-biden-ukraine-china/.

2 “Republican Opposition to Helping Ukraine Grows, WSJ Poll Finds,” Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/republican-opposition-to-helping-ukraine-grows-wsj-poll-finds-11667467802.

3 Megan McArdle, “The pound’s fall is partly America’s fault,” Washington Post, November 16, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/11/16/pound-sterling-inflation-united-states-dollar/ .

4 Catie Edmonson & Emily Cochrane, “House Passes $40 Billion More in Ukraine Aid, With Few Questions Asked,” New York Times, May 10, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/10/us/politics/congress-ukraine-aid-questions.html?action=click&pgtype=Article&module=&state=default&region=footer&context=breakout_link_back_to_briefing.

5 Foreign Assistance.gov, updated as of 11/04/22, https://foreignassistance.gov/cd/ukraine/2022/obligations/0 ; and Opening Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the Seventh Ukraine Defense Contact Group (As Delivered), November 16, 2022, https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgzGqRZhTXGZsSMJzBrcwjPvGZTlc

6Congressional Budget Office, An Analysis of the President’s 2023 Budget, September 2022, https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2022-09/58417-APB.pdf.

7BEA, Gross Domestic Product, Third Quarter 2022 (Advance Estimate), BEA22-51, October27, 2022, https://www.bea.gov/news/2022/gross-domestic-product-third-quarter-2022-advance-estimate.

World Bank, Ukraine Recovery and Reconstruction Needs Estimated $349 Billion, September 9, 2022, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/09/09/ukraine-recovery-and-reconstruction-needs-estimated-349-billion.

9 Figures are drawn from the country sections of the IISS, Military Balance 2023.

10 NATO official data for 2021 do not provide a clear picture. They only show GDP in 2015 prices and exchange rates, with all of NATO totaling $39,650 billion, NATO Europe and Canada totaling $19,312 billion, NATO Europe totaling $ 17,632 billion, and the U.S. totaling $20,338 billion. (see NATO Communique PR/CP(2022)105, Junes 27, 2022, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2022/6/pdf/220627-def-exp-2022-en.pdf . There is no agreement as to how to convert 2015 constant dollars to 2021 current dollars, and the usual multipliers seems to be around 1.14 1.14. This would raise the NATO total to $45.2 trillion. The $37 billion figure is a low estimate taken from a Google search of current dollar estimates for all of NATO. 11Catherine Byaruhanga, “Leave if you can to save energy – Ukraine Power boss,” BBC, 19.11.22, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63687037 ; BBC, “Ukraine War: Almost Half Ukraine’s energy system disable, PM Says,” BBC, November 11, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63681401 ; David L. Stern and Robyn Dixon, “Russia pummels Ukraine with missiles and drones, injuring civilians,” Washington Post, November 17, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/11/17/ukraine-missile-strikes-grain-deal/ ; Lara Jakes, “How Was Russia Able to Launch Its Biggest Aerial Attack on Ukraine?,” New York Times, November 18, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/18/us/politics/ukraine-russia-missiles.html.

12 Joby Warrick, Saoud Mekhennet, and Ellen Nakashima, “ Iran to Help Russia to build drones for use in war,” Washington Post, November 20, 2022, p. 1; Marc Santor, Shashank Bengali, and Andrew E. Kramer, “Aerial War Over Ukraine Heats Up as Russia Pounds Cities, New York Times November 8, 2022

13 Isabelle Khurshudyan , Paul Sonne . Liz Sly and Kamila Hrabchuk, “Ukraine confronts tougher fight in push to extend battlefield wins,” Washington Post, November 19, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/11/19/ukraine-confronts-tougher-fight-push-extend-battlefield-wins/

14 Excerpted from U.S. Department of Defense, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Army General Mark A. Milley, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hold a Press Briefing Following Ukrainian Defense Contact Group Meeting,” Nov. 16, 2022, https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/3220910/secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-and-army-general-mark-a-milley-chairman/.

15Vivian Salama and Michel Gordon, “Senior White House Official Involved in Undisclosed Talks With Top Putin Aides,” Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/senior-white-house-official-involved-in-undisclosed-talks-with-top-putin-aides-11667768988?mod=article_inline.

16 Karoun Demirjian, “Milley tries to clarify his case for a negotiated end to Ukraine war,” Washington Post, November 16, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2022/11/16/milley-ukraine-negotiate/.

17 Matthew Luxmore, Laurence Norman, and Marcus Walker, “Ukraine’s Zelensky Sets Conditions for ‘Genuine’ Peace Talks With Russia,” Wal Street Journal, November 8, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraines-zelensky-sets-conditions-for-genuine-peace-talks-with-russia-11667907501.

18 Colin Meyn, “What we know about the missile that hit Poland,” The Hill, November 16,2022, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/3738402-what-we-know-about-the-missile-that-hit-poland/ ; and BBC, “Ukraine war: 10 million without power after Russian strikes,” November 18, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-63659370.

19 BBC, “What is a ‘dirty bomb’ and why is Russia saying Ukraine could use one?” October 25, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-63373637 ; “The claim of a Ukrainian “dirty bomb” has got America’s attention,” The Economist, October 27, 2022, https://www.economist.com/united-states/2022/10/27/the-claim-of-a-ukrainian-dirty-bomb-has-got-americas-attention.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy