October 12, 2022
Center for American Security
Ending Putin’s Invasion: Defining the Direction of U.S. Assistance (as of day 231 of the invasion)
October 12, 2022
- To bring Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to a peaceful end, it is not enough for the U.S. to support Ukraine militarily; it must also define a roadmap for peace and convene peace talks between Ukraine and Russia.
- President Biden and his team need to be much more transparent with the American people about the effect U.S. assistance to Ukraine is having on Russia.
- If more assistance is needed, the Biden team should clarify how the burden for providing it is being shared with European partners.
How much support does Ukraine need to prevail in the face of Russia’s ongoing and brutal military campaign? To what extent have the money and military equipment the United States and other nations provided to Ukraine since late February helped Ukraine win against Russia on the battlefield?
What, for that matter, is the desired end state? Is it cessation of hostilities or ejection of Russian forces from all or some of Ukrainian territory? Moreover, how does President Joe Biden respond when it comes to any further escalation by Russian President Vladimir Putin?
These questions are newly urgent, with Putin having upped the ante significantly over recent weeks, especially in his announced annexation of territory in Ukraine, his call for the increased mobilization of 300,000 additional forces, his targeting of Ukrainian cities by missiles, and his renewed threats of the use of nuclear weapons. President Biden has recently asked Congress to appropriate an additional $11.7 billion in assistance, which would raise the overall amount of U.S. assistance to Ukraine to $55.7 billion since February. But how do we measure whether this is enough or too much?
Over the last seven months, the United States and Western allies and partners have marshaled a global effort to curb Russia’s economic means of revenue generation and access global marketplaces and networks to respond to Russian aggression, which took the form of targeted sanctions on Putin and his circle whose effectiveness remains debated (Malley, 2022). From a diplomatic and economic perspective, the costs for all sides have been steep. For Europe, the economic costs of the conflict in Ukraine and its appropriate response to Russian aggression have been monumental. For Russia, the diplomatic costs have been particularly steep.
From International Pressure to End State
The problem with the steps taken by the United States and western allies to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin and his circle is that they do not represent a strategy to achieve the desired end state, in large part because nobody has articulated what that end state looks like. Meanwhile, Putin continues to escalate, both militarily and through economic blackmail, for example, by limiting exports of grain from Ukraine.
Despite this unity of resolve between the United States and its western allies, developments over the last seven months do not paint a clear picture of the end state or the strategy to achieve it and end the war. The application of Sweden and Finland to become members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an important and positive milestone that strengthens the alliance and military posture in Europe, but by no means appears to benefit Ukraine directly in the near term.
President Biden expressing solidarity with Ukraine is not a substitute for a real plan. In his May 31, 2022, op-ed in The New York Times, he explains that “[w]e want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression” (Biden 2022). This is a statement of general policy on Ukraine, but it does not constitute a roadmap to end a deadly conflict. The Biden Administration still has not produced a National Security Strategy, which is required by law under the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. The placeholder document the current administration produced in March 2021, the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, provides little insight into the administration’s goals or priorities in Europe, much less in Ukraine.
The absence of any such strategic approach on the part of the Biden Administration muddies the waters regarding assessing the efficacy of U.S. economic, military, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. The disproportionate contributions made by the United States to assist Ukraine—not just in absolute terms but also as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)—compared to those of other NATO members confirms long-standing and well-known structural problems plaguing the alliance. The U.S. aid to Ukraine since the start of the conflict is more than double the total aid given by the Europeans. The European nations that border Russia—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—have made significant contributions that demonstrate the seriousness with which they regard the threat from Russia, whereas other European nations have been inconsistent in their support. For example, Germany—Europe’s second-largest economy—has given the 4th most in absolute bilateral commitments (after the United States at number 1, then European Union institutions, and then the United Kingdom) but only ranks 13th in its commitments as a share of GDP (after the United States, Slovakia, Portugal, and Denmark) (Antezza, Frank, et al., 2022, pp. 23-24). Latvia gives more as a percent of GDP than France. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the Republic of Korea—non-NATO members and far from the Ukrainian front line geographically, even if not economically—collectively contributed nearly $1 billion (Ibid.).
We must always push our allies to do more to share the burden of collective security and maintain deterrence. In a kinetic war, as is currently taking place in Europe, we must be even more focused on not only equal burden sharing but a clear alignment of responsibilities to reach the specific goal of ending that war.
As a point of historical comparison, former Secretary of State George C. Marshall gave a speech at a Harvard commencement ceremony to explain to the American people why the American-funded European economic recovery program that bore his name—the Marshall Plan—was in the American interest. Although the argument was compelling—that the revival of Europe’s post-war economy was integral to American prosperity, national security, and its future in general—it bears noting how difficult a case it must have been to make to those American families who had lost everything on that very continent just years earlier. But the case held up because the American interest was clear.
While American interests in Europe have changed little in the decades since the Marshall Plan’s execution, Europe is no longer decimated and unable to step up. Unlike during Marshall’s time, we should expect our European partners to equally share the burden of collective security, especially when it comes to a war on their continent. In the aftermath of World War II, Europe was in ruins, and there was a clear concern that our adversary, the Soviet Union, would seek to expand its sphere of influence in the region—concerns that proved all too real. European nations are generally in a far better place today to defend their territorial integrity and sovereignty. Collectively, they represent a critical economic and military powerhouse and, therefore, should be expected to carry their equal share of the burden.
The nature of warfare has similarly evolved since then. If we continue to engage at great economic costs to the American people, it must be clear how this sacrifice will translate directly to giving Ukraine the advantage it needs to survive on the battlefield and end the war. Where the Biden Administration can learn from Secretary of State Marshall is the need to articulate a clear American interest and then develop policies based on that stated interest that appropriately distribute the burden with allies.
Making Sense of Ukraine Aid Dollars
There is surprisingly little public congressional oversight into how the $44 billion the United States has provided Ukraine since March (and the $11.7 billion President Biden just requested of Congress) is being spent, whether the military or humanitarian aid has been effective, and how much more it would take for Ukraine to win. Outside of strong letters to the administration on how these dollars have been allocated or their effects, Congress has not produced publicly accessible information on this subject (Risch, McCaul, 2022). Besides one hearing on the margins of the congressional vote on the $40 billion aid package in May of 2022, there have been no public engagements between congressional committees and senior Biden officials on the narrow question of tying appropriated funds to policy objectives in Ukraine. The president and cabinet-level officials have spoken about U.S. assistance to Ukraine on several occasions but have not given a clear explanation for how much total assistance will be required for this conflict nor how U.S. economic and military assistance will translate into victory for Ukraine.
Recounting lists of ammunition or numbers of Howitzers does not provide context regarding whether such assistance is appropriate or adequate to overpower the Russian military. Coupled with this, there is the related question of how the Biden Administration determines which military material it chooses to send to Ukraine and whether there is a range of acceptable outcomes it would accept as far as defining what “victory” looks like. Given the urgency, is there an explanation for what seems to be the slow and partial distribution of authorized assistance?
Absent clarity on key objectives and what it would take to achieve them, there is no meaningful way to measure success or the appropriateness of U.S. actions to achieve it, particularly in the context of what other countries are doing. This issue of appropriateness extends beyond burden sharing to include avoiding duplication of efforts, ensuring the interoperability of weapons systems, Ukrainian training capacity, and the timeliness of weapons transfers. There has been no clear or systematic discussion of these issues, certainly not in relation to the overall strategy to end the war.
There is also a notable gap between what Ukraine has asked for and what the United States and others have provided, both in terms of quantities and timeliness. For example, the United States has provided far fewer Multiple Launch Rocket Systems than the number Ukraine has requested and has not met Ukraine’s request to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. Clearly, the United States is being deliberate about which of Ukraine’s demands it honors, but to the public, it is not clear which of Ukraine’s demands are reasonable for the United States to honor and which, moreover, are necessary for Ukraine to win.
This raises perhaps the most urgent aspect of our assistance to Ukraine, even more so than burden sharing, of “for how long.” While from a strategic messaging standpoint, it is welcomed that the G-7 committed to supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” from an accountability and oversight perspective, the American people deserve to hear from their president about the plan and timeline going forward (Amante, Williams, 2022). Endless economic and military assistance to Ukraine without a policy direction or goal is perilous for the United States, particularly given the state of today’s economy.
The America First Vision for an End State in Ukraine
The America First Policy Institute (AFPI) strongly stands with the people of Ukraine in supporting them and helping them win on the battlefield and, simultaneously, has called for an orderly and peaceful resolution to the conflict. AFPI has also called for sending Ukraine the military assistance it needs to win on the battlefield. On the narrower question of the U.S.’s monetary assistance to Ukraine, AFPI will continue to oppose any additional funds without oversight or connection to policy objectives. In June 2022, Center for American Security Co-Chair, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Keith Kellogg and Vice Chair Fred Fleitz wrote that “[t]he United States should not contribute more assistance to Ukraine until NATO members contribute more, and until there is accountability firmly in place and it is clear that the alliance is fully supporting Ukrainian goals and requirements to bring Russia to negotiations to end its aggression in Ukraine” (Statement, 2022).
This call for negotiations to end the invasion echoes the Center’s position in an Issue Brief published in April 2022, which argued that “[t]he United States should attempt to develop a diplomatic course to transition out of the current conflict by identifying credible interlocutors to present diplomatic offramps for Russia and Ukraine that preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty and security – framing these offramps in a manner that resonates with both parties and working directly and through credible interlocutors will be key to succeeding” (Issue Brief, 2022). The specific offramps need not be defined at the outset. Rather, the priority should be on the United States establishing the conditions for talks to begin as soon as possible, with the stated first step of stopping hostilities.
Zelenskyy outlined a “five-point plan” in his speech before the United Nations General Assembly, although he did not offer a roadmap for ending the conflict. Rather, his points appear to be a list of items Ukraine needs to fight (e.g., more weapons, sanctions) as well as calls to resolve collateral damage from the conflict (e.g., Russia’s disruption to food and energy supplies) and to hold Russia accountable (e.g., special tribunals) (Dutton, 2022). A list of points, however thorough, is not the same as what is required to bring the invasion to an end. It is up to the United States to translate these points into a roadmap.
The new and dangerous phase of this conflict that Putin has entered by talking of mobilization and the use of nuclear weapons is still talk as of this writing and may also be a sign of desperation. If Russian culpability behind the recent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline is established, that will constitute an escalation with a direct message to Europe and to the United States. As the symbol of Germany's dependence on Russia, and coming soon before winter, the sabotage of the pipeline serves as an opening salvo by Putin to see how Europe and the United States should respond.
This is where American leadership comes in. It is not enough to offer economic and military assistance to Ukraine without pursuing a parallel process of peace negotiations toward de-escalation. That must begin with Zelenskyy clarifying to the United States what practical reality on the ground Ukraine can live in and proceed to define the parameters of negotiations from there. At the same time, with Putin clearly seeking a way for the United States to become directly involved in the war, President Biden, along with NATO counterparts, must establish a clear threshold for any direct military engagement. At what point does Putin’s escalatory behavior constitute an attack on NATO? Influential policy voices have suggested NATO responses in recent days, but this must be very judiciously considered, especially with the vast second-order effects of a military confrontation with Russia. Even though NATO can overpower Putin militarily, he appears to act as someone with little left to lose, which would be a dangerous prospect.
This means a serious and direct statement of policy by President Biden and his team of what the next chapter of this war looks like and what actions he is ready to take to meet Putin’s escalation. Coupled with this statement, Biden must articulate clearly and seriously that a path toward peace still exists despite Putin’s escalatory rhetoric and behavior and that coming to the table is the preferred option. Former President Trump has offered himself as a mediator for peace talks. Although Biden is unlikely to tap the former president for this job, it is the right next step for the United States to serve in the convening role of peace talks.
As with any engagement by the United States overseas, it must begin with a clear definition of the American interest. That determination guides the amount and quality of assistance and the degree of U.S. involvement. In the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there must be a laser focus on responsibly ensuring Putin’s defeat. The United States can decisively change the balance on this issue, not only by expeditiously helping Ukraine on the battlefield but also by convening and facilitating a negotiation process. This begins with American leadership and effective work through interlocutors.
America’s deftness in responsibly ensuring Putin’s defeat will be integral to addressing another core American interest: deterring Communist China and containing the Iranian government, the world’s lead state sponsor of terrorism. Although Putin’s defeat is likely to send a message to both China and Iran, that depends on how America engages with them as well. Part of ensuring Putin’s defeat means consistency of rhetoric and action by the Biden Administration in confronting Communist China and the Iranian government as the threats and adversaries that they are, with no equivocation. What message does it send that America sends assistance to help defeat one adversary while offering sanctions relief to appease another adversary? America must approach its assistance to Ukraine not only in a manner that helps it achieve victory over one adversary but also in a manner that deters all of America’s adversaries.
This latter point requires a particularly urgent deftness from the Biden Administration not only to convene negotiations between Ukraine and Russia but also to confront allies with ties to Russia, like India and Saudi Arabia, to compel a complete decoupling from Russia. Part of that conversation should include a reassurance that the United States and its allies have the will and capacity to help them defend themselves against any aggression or retaliation by Putin, should matters come to that, much as they have been able to do in the case of Ukraine. Indeed, these conversations can be decisive in stopping Putin’s invasion, demonstrating the true extent of his isolation because of his actions.
Now is also the time for the Biden Administration to change its tune on its rhetoric and approach to other adversaries, demonstrating a decisiveness to apply strength consistently. This includes ceasing negotiations with Iran while shoring up the support of allies in the region to go after the Iranian regime. Similarly, China must understand from the president and his senior staff that the United States will not tolerate any provocations regarding Taiwan.
This would also be a good time for the Biden Administration to change its policy when it comes to energy by turning on American energy production while creating opportunities to wean our European partners off Russian energy.
Although the reality is that this administration is unlikely to take many of these steps, particularly the necessary steps regarding supporting American energy and stopping negotiations with Iran, it is this consistent and wholistic approach at home and overseas that will reinforce the message with Putin and our other adversaries that America is committed to deterring adversaries and stopping them from committing atrocities against innocent civilians.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Keith Kellogg is the Co-Chair of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute.
The Honorable John Ratcliffe is the Co-Chair of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute.
The Honorable Fred Fleitz is the Vice Chair of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute.
The Honorable Robert Wilkie is a Distinguished Fellow in the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute.
Jacob Olidort, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute