The Budget Deal Is a Tragedy for Ukraine

6 minute read
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is Lester Crown Professor of Leadership Practice and a Senior Associate Dean of the Yale School of Management. He helped catalyze the retreat of 1,200 global corporations from Russia.

The surprise last-minute deal proposed by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to avert a government shutdown came at a steep price for Ukraine. The Republican-led 45-day stopgap spending bill, which dropped support for Ukraine, won enough support from House Democrats to overwhelmingly pass with 315 votes. Sadly, some congressional leaders have been emboldened to walk away from Ukraine given some surveys claiming 55% of voters do not believe Congress should authorize additional funding to support Ukraine—a reversal from 62% in favor this time last year.

Though both parties deserve credit for preventing a government shutdown, the reneging of support for Ukraine will have disastrous ripple effects and plays directly into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s only winning hand—propaganda and attrition—to weaken allied support. Here are the facts that voters ought to understand about American support for Ukraine.

First, Ukraine is not the financial sinkhole anti-Ukraine extremists would like to portray, and U.S. support for Ukraine is far cheaper than it seems. For all its mistaken use as a political hot potato in budget talks, the $43 billion on U.S. military aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded amounts to about 5% of the U.S. defense budget and less than 1% of total government spending. This is not an insignificant sum but, to put things in perspective, it’s equivalent to the amount the U.S. is spending on such mundane items such as software for government agencies; COVID rental relief, and highway safety programs.

The weapons the U.S. is sending, like the 186 Bradley tanks so prized by Ukraine, from our stockpiles are likewise not breaking the bank. Unlike other foreign adventures, the U.S. is not shouldering the load alone as European countries have contributed an equivalent amount in military aid themselves and twice as much in humanitarian support. Some European countries such as Estonia are setting aside half their defense budget for Ukraine’s defense, an order of magnitude higher than U.S. support. And most importantly, the U.S. has sent no American troops to Ukraine and zero American lives have been lost with the Ukrainians doing all the fighting.

Europe stands mostly united with the U.S. in support for Ukraine. Poland and Lithuania were the first to sever all Russian gas purchases and Germany’s new LNG terminals made it possible for the entire EU to follow, a huge flip from the Nordstream I and II promise. Furthermore, the mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski told me in his office last month that fully 20% of Poland’s population are warmly welcomed, productively employed Ukrainian refugees. It takes little for Poles across sectors and parties to recall their history with Russia from the 1930s mass slaughter of tens of thousands in the Katyn Forest when they though Russia was their ally to Lech Walesa’s overthrow of Russian domination 50 years later. With upcoming acrimonious elections in Poland elevated partisan tensions, leaders of both parties tell me that their animosity towards Putin and Russia transcends any political divides.

Neville Chamberlain At Heston Airport
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waves to the crowd at Heston Airport and declaims, "Peace in our Time", after returning from signing the Munich Agreement. Corbis-Getty Images

For our miniscule financial investment, the U.S. is reaping massive returns. Ukraine has already destroyed 50% of Russia’s military might by some measures, forcing Putin to spend well over $150 billion on the country’s military replenishment. Ukraine’s counteroffensive may not be going as fast as some would have liked, but it is making progress. Economically, sanctions combined with the exodus of over 1,000 private sector companies have choked Russia’s economy, with some sectors down from 60 to 90%. Combined with escalating war costs, Putin is being forced to cannibalize the productive economy to replenish his coffers, basically tossing the living room furniture into the fireplace in desperation. On the other hand, Ukraine is bustling with energy and enthusiasm. Having just returned from a visit to Kyiv, I witnessed first-hand how Ukrainians from combat veterans to young professionals to baristas in the café are eager to contribute to the reconstruction of a new, modernized, Westernized Ukraine.  

Appeasement is not a serious choice; if the U.S. chooses not to fund military assistance to Ukraine as Republicans like Matt Gaetz and Rand Paul would have it, or if the U.S. forces Ukraine to surrender its lands as even New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has proposed, we are surely staring at even higher costs moving forward. Putin’s expansionist agenda does not stop at Ukraine, and next up will be Poland, Moldova, Finland, Sweden, and others.

He has already signaled as much—in a July 2021 essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russia and Ukraine,” Putin not only foreshadowed his intention to invade Ukraine but made sweeping claims to the historical unity of Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Georgia, and Kazkakhstan as extensions of Russkiy Mir, or the “Russian world.” And even more importantly, if the U.S. abandons Ukraine, China may be emboldened to seize Taiwan. The consequences of that would stretch far beyond the Asia-Pacific region—the self-ruling island controls about 70% of the global semiconductor supply, which is critical to everything from the smartphones in our pockets to the military hardware the U.S. military depends on.

Anyone who still advocates for appeasement in the face of a dictator who has already invaded three countries—Georgia in 2008, the Syrian intervention in 2013, and Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022—is dangerously misreading the threat that the Russian leader poses to the world. This is missing the lessons of World War II on the 85th anniversary of Neville Chamberlain’s ill-fated concession to Hitler in the Munich Agreement where parallel land of seized German speaking Czechoslovakia we surrendered to Germany in an effort at making peace.

The simpler choice is to spend less than 1% of the government budget to support Ukraine’s defense today, or to spend much more in the future amid empowered foreign adversaries, potential NATO activation, and even U.S. boots on the ground.

Putin is reeling, and the only arrow left in his quiver is to use propaganda and attrition to wear down allied support. While keeping the government running is worthy of celebration, dropping Ukraine was hardly necessary to avoid a government shutdown. After all, just two days ago, the House voted overwhelmingly to support assistance to Ukraine, including over 100 Republicans.

Now it will take a separate legislative act to pass funding for Ukraine; Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell may have to channel the heroic role of former GOP Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a former isolationist, who helped fortify wavering GOP support for the Marshall Plan among his colleagues after World War II. But even if Ukraine funding eventually passes, thanks to today’s mistakes, Putin will be freshly empowered, thinking that U.S. support for Ukraine is weakening, and we will be paying even higher costs for a long time to come.

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