Photo by Aris Messinis / AFP
Artillery Row

The costs of war

Providing military assistance to Ukraine may be the right thing to do, but it’s not cheap

A popular argument in favour of military assistance to Ukraine is that it allows the US and its allies to get rid of a rival for cheap. By spending only a small fraction of their military spending to help Ukraine, so the argument goes, Western countries are destroying Russia’s military potential and reducing its ability to harm Western interests.

Not only does this argument overestimate the threat that Russia posed to the West before the war, but it vastly underestimates the cost of providing military assistance to Ukraine. This may nevertheless be a good policy — but if it is, it’s not because it’s cheap.

If the US and its allies can really get rid of a rival for a few billion dollars, then it wasn’t much of a rival to begin with. In fact, Russia was never a serious rival of the West. Even if helping Ukraine would reduce the threat posed by Russia to the West, this argument would still misrepresent the achievement.

Russia has a GDP that is about the same as Canada’s in nominal terms and Germany’s in purchasing power parity. It would take a lot more than that to make it a rival of the US and its allies. Hyping the so-called “Russian threat never made sense given Russia’s actual capabilities, something that should be even clearer now that we have seen it struggle against Ukraine.

People in the Kremlin may have overestimated Russia’s capabilities, as seems evident from the failure of the invasion of Ukraine. They are not so delusional as not to understand the enormous power differential between Russia and NATO.

As I explained recently, Ukraine holds a special place in both the geopolitical calculations and the heart of Russian foreign policy elites. Even if they didn’t understand that attacking a NATO member would be suicidal, they would have no inclination to do so. The fact that most people also didn’t think that Russia would launch a full-blown invasion of Ukraine in 2022 doesn’t invalidate that point. 

Those who argue that providing military assistance to Ukraine is cheap also underestimate the actual costs of the policy. This argument only takes into account the direct cost so far in monetary terms, whilst ignoring the much larger indirect costs that have already been incurred and that will grow over time.

It’s true that so far the direct monetary cost of military assistance to Ukraine has been relatively small. For instance, Congress has appropriated $48 billion for security assistance to Ukraine (not all of which has actually been spent yet), which is only 6.7 per cent of the US defence outlays in 2022. This comparison is misleading, however, because security assistance to Ukraine mostly consists of equipment that is directly taken from US inventories or money to procure it from industry. 

It makes more sense to compare it to the amount of money the US spends on procurement each year. Since procurement is only a small share of the total defence budget, $48 billion is 38.7 per cent of the amount spent on procurement by the Department of Defense in 2022, which is hardly negligible and more importantly gives a more accurate idea of the impact military assistance to Ukraine has on US military preparedness.

Military assistance to Ukraine is emptying US inventories very quickly

Since military assistance to Ukraine is funded through supplemental appropriations, and it is even used opportunistically by members of Congress to surreptitiously increase the Department of Defense’s regular budget, it doesn’t take any funding away from it.

The real problem is that military assistance to Ukraine is emptying US inventories very quickly. The industry can’t keep up, so the fact that it doesn’t reduce the Pentagon’s budget is not much of a consolation. Money doesn’t magically get you more stuff to replenish your inventories and restore your capabilities. The stuff in question that is purchased has to be made first.

In other words, although it doesn’t cost that much money (at least for now), military assistance to Ukraine is crowding out procurement for the US military by emptying inventories and putting the military industry under a lot of strain. For several critical systems, at the current rate of production, it will take several years to replenish the US military inventories. The war only started a year ago, so it’s likely that a broader range of capabilities will be affected if (as seems likely) the war drags on.

I have focused on the US because it is by far the main provider of military assistance to Ukraine, but US allies face the same problem. Plans to increase production capacities have been announced, but it will take time to implement them. Even when that’s done, it is unclear that it will be enough to cover Ukraine’s needs.

Now that NATO has committed to Ukraine’s defence, not only is there no saying how much money security assistance to Ukraine will cost in the end, but there is also no saying for how long and how much this commitment will keep inventories low whilst putting Western military production under strain.

Of course, the indirect effect that military assistance to Ukraine has on the West’s military preparedness will only matter if the US and its allies are involved in a major war in this decade, which seems very unlikely. Nevertheless, this still can’t be ruled out entirely, especially for a country such as the US with many commitments all over the world.

At the beginning of 1990, nobody expected that the US would have to move hundreds of thousands of troops and huge amounts of equipment in Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom and secure the West’s supply of oil after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, yet it still happened.

Moreover, the indirect costs of providing military assistance to Ukraine are not limited to the effect it has on the West’s military preparedness — far from it. Providing military assistance to Ukraine, by prolonging the conventional phase of the war, increases the amount of economic assistance to Ukraine that we’ll have to provide both during and after the war. What’s more, getting on the wrong side of Russia is extremely costly.

If we take into account the economic aid, the total amount of money spent by the West to support Ukraine during the war may not be that large yet, but it will reach hundreds of billions of dollars before it’s over. That is the best case scenario. It may well exceed a trillion if the war drags on and continues to escalate. 

Perhaps more importantly, providing military assistance to Ukraine has already had a huge indirect economic cost. This is less true for the US, which is largely insulated from the economic consequences of the war, but it’s very different in Europe where the economic war with Russia and in particular the reduction of Russian gas deliveries is largely responsible for the European energy crisis.

The cost of policies to shield households and businesses from rising energy costs has already reached almost 800 billion euros. Taking into account the negative impact of the crisis on economic growth, the cost for Europe will almost certainly exceed one trillion euros by the time the war is over. It may well cost far more than that in the end.

Helping Ukraine could endanger the non-proliferation agenda

Russia may have stopped gas deliveries to the EU even if European countries had not provided military assistance to Ukraine. It seems unlikely however, in light of the loss of revenue this decision has caused for Moscow, as long as the EU had not continued to ratchet up economic sanctions after the invasion.

By prolonging the conventional phase of the war, military assistance to Ukraine will also increase the amount of destruction — hence the size of the bill that Western countries will have to foot to rebuild the country after the war. The cost was already estimated by the World Bank at $500-$600 billion after 9 months of war, and it will obviously rise over time.

Helping Ukraine and prolonging the war will probably degrade the Russian military capabilities significantly — and therefore also Russia’s ability to harm the West’s interests. That is, unless the massive increase of its military spending yields a much more capable Russian military force by the end of the war. Again, this is unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out entirely). Nonetheless, helping Ukraine has definitely increased Russia’s willingness to harm the West.

Russia may not be a serious rival for the US and its allies, as I noted above, but it nevertheless has considerable spoiling power in virtue of its size, geography, military technology, permanent seat at the UN Security Council, etc. The people who make that argument seem to think that Russia is already as bad as it can be, but I’m afraid they are going to realise how wrong they are about that.

Russia has actually collaborated with the US and its allies on a number of issues since the end of the Cold War. If it stops because we are supporting Ukraine, supporters of military intervention are going to feel the difference. Unfortunately, so will the rest of us, who didn’t want to commit to Ukraine’s defence so strongly.

In order to keep good relations with the West, for instance, Russia has traditionally refrained from selling its most advanced weapon systems to adversaries of the US and its allies. If the Russians start selling advanced weapon systems — such as their air defence systems — it could seriously limit the West’s options or make them more costly in future crises.

Helping Ukraine could even endanger the non-proliferation agenda, which critically relies on cooperation with Russia. What is left of the arms control regime between the US and Russia is already falling apart as a result of the West’s support to Ukraine. If things continue to escalate, it’s hard to see how it could be revived anytime soon. This in turn will make it more difficult to achieve the goal of a multilateral arms control regime that would include China and other nuclear powers.

This alone represents a huge cost, not only for the West, but for the entire world. Though people tend to forget it, mutual assured destruction did not end with the Cold War. Nuclear weapons will remain a danger to civilization as long as countries have large nuclear arsenals. Anything that endangers the non-proliferation agenda should be seen as extremely costly.

The end of the US-Russia bilateral arms control regime would actually be a greater disadvantage to Russia than the US, because maintaining a large nuclear arsenal is extremely expensive, and Russia has less resources than the US. Even government officials frequently act against their own interests when they are outraged, however.

Russia’s decision to suspend its participation in the New START treaty is clearly a desperate attempt to induce the US to reduce military assistance to Ukraine. Still, it is very unlikely that Russia will resume its participation when it doesn’t work. Not only would this involve a loss of face, but the treaty’s intrusive verification system requires a working relationship. Such a relationship is unlikely to survive a further deterioration of the relations between the US and Russia.

In the worst case scenario, a desperate Russia could even help Iran get the bomb — or at least close its eyes to Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for help against Ukraine. As Hanna Notte recently pointed out, the continuation of the war certainly has made Russia both less willing and able to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Whilst a nuclear escalation is very unlikely, it would also be catastrophic. Taking such a risk is obviously not in the West’s interests, other things being equal. The only scenario in which I can see Putin ordering the use of nuclear weapons is one in which Ukraine seems poised to take back Crimea. This only has a chance of happening if the West continues to provide military assistance to Kiev.

We could provide military assistance to Ukraine whilst making clear to Kiev that Crimea is off limits, but it’s unclear that we could prevent the Ukrainians from trying to take the peninsula back if they ever were in a position to do so. Indeed, as I argued previously, there are good reasons to think they would just call our bluff on our threat to cut military assistance.

Western military assistance is an expensive way to help our rival

If Putin ever used nuclear weapons in Ukraine, it would at best badly damage the taboo on using nuclear weapons. At worst, it could result in a nuclear war. The US and its allies would have to do something, and they wouldn’t have any good options.

As James Acton recently noted, if we decided to make concessions to prevent escalation after Russia had already used nuclear weapons, the non-proliferation regime would be be far more compromised than if they hadn’t provided military assistance to Ukraine in the first place. As I argued above, providing assistance has most likely increased the risk of proliferation rather than decreased it. The taboo on using nuclear weapons, which has held since 1945, would be no more.

On the other hand, if we decided to respond militarily by launching a conventional strike against Russia (we obviously wouldn’t respond with nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack against Ukraine), then either it would be limited and the taboo on using nuclear weapons would still be seriously damaged — or it would be devastating. Then God only knows where it would end.

Other things being equal, it’s clearly in the interest of the US and its allies not to risk finding themselves in the position where they have to make this choice. The only way to make sure they never will be in that position is not to provide military assistance to Ukraine.

Providing military assistance to Ukraine will also strengthen China’s hand by pushing Russia even closer to China. This in turn will increase Beijing’s ability to harm the West’s interests and, other things being equal, its willingness to do so. Unlike Russia, which as we have seen is a relatively weak country and not a rival of the West in any meaningful sense, China actually is a threat to the US hegemony. If you regard this hegemony as valuable, this constitutes yet another indirect cost of providing military assistance to Ukraine.

During the Cold War, the US skillfully played China against the Soviet Union, which helped it to gain leverage in negotiations and usher in the era of détente. Now it will bring China and Russia together and increase the probability of a new Cold War. Western military assistance is not a cheap way to get rid of a rival; it’s an expensive way to help one.

Now that Europe cannot buy Russian gas, it has to buy gas on the LNG market. This prices out low-income countries that rely on LNG to fulfil their demand. The consequence is that some countries, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, face rolling power blackouts in the next several years because they can no longer afford gas for their gas-fired power plants. As a result, they will increasingly turn to coal instead of gas for power generation (Pakistan has already announced it would do so), making climate change worse for everyone.

Providing military assistance to Ukraine arguably harms even the Ukrainians. By prolonging the war, it increases the number of innocent people, both Russian and Ukrainian, who are killed or injured. People usually reply that this is irrelevant because the Ukrainians want to fight and are asking for the West’s help. It doesn’t follow that providing military assistance to Ukraine doesn’t harm them and that we should do it, however.

When someone has preferences that we deem harmful, we generally don’t believe that we should help satisfy them. If a friend of yours has been assaulted and asks you to give him your gun to defend himself the next time someone attacks him, you may not have a moral obligation to do so. You may even have a moral obligation to refuse.

Ukraine’s request for military assistance against Russia does not necessarily fall in the category of cases where help should be withheld — this is a complicated question that would require a separate discussion — but it’s not enough to point out that the Ukrainians want to fight. We may not have a moral reason to help them do it, especially when doing so has a significant cost for us and others. 

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