Photo by Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Where do you draw the line?

The West should think twice before providing endless weaponry to Ukraine

If the US Congress signs off on President Biden’s latest $33 billion aid package for Ukraine, it will bring the total amount of US assistance provided to Ukraine since the war began to $47 billion. About $24 billion of that is military assistance. That’s a lot of weaponry to “maximize the kill chain”, as it was referred to when I was fighting in Afghanistan. 

The current mantra of “lethal aid” that suddenly entered the lexicon is a classic bit of linguistic origami worthy of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Obviously brave Ukrainian fighters will benefit from the US flexing its astonishing resources, but so will Pentagon contractors who spent more than $16 million on lobbying in the first quarter of 2022, according to Open Secrets, a Washington, D.C.-based organisation that tracks money in US politics. Then there are the risks, in particular the potential for getting the US in direct confrontation with Russia, as Russian casualties mount from the US shipping vast quantities of powerful and technologically advanced weapons. It is everything that President Dwight Eisenhower — who during World War II served as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe — warned about. In his 1961 farewell address, he focused on the country’s new martial aspect bequeathed by the war he fought in. 

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” Eisenhower said. “The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.”

As a result, Eisenhower warned that “we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications” and “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought of unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist”. 

It made one wonder about the ever-ticking hours of running costs

Such warnings also relate to the UK and its defence budget and military assistance to Ukraine, despite it being a fraction of the US’s largesse. Ill always remember during forward air controller training before we deployed to Afghanistan: a RAF jet turned up above the rolling hills of northern England for those of us on the ground to practise close air support drills. The pilot had bid us farewell when our instructor casually commented that the one hour we had just spent with the jet cost the UK taxpayer about £30,000. That’s significant running costs. But what else was to be done: we had to be trained, and that’s what it costs to run a top-of-the-range military jet. It still made one wonder about the ever-ticking hours of running costs for all those military vehicles, aircraft, ships and submarines out there. 

It’s not just US weapons making a significant difference in Ukraine. There has been a “classified effort by the Biden administration to provide real-time battlefield intelligence to Ukraine”, the New York Times reported recently. This has played a significant role in the number of Russian generals killed. It’s not known how many generals had been killed as a result of US assistance, the article says, but Ukrainian officials claim to have killed approximately 12 generals on the front lines — “a number that has astonished military analysts”.

Some of the new weaponry that would be sent to Ukraine thanks to the $33 billion package should “improve Ukraine’s ability to target senior Russian officers”, the NYT article says. A smaller version of the Switchblade drone — a so-called “kamikaze” drone that blows itself up on impacting a target — “can be used to identify and kill individual soldiers, and could take out a general sitting in a vehicle or giving orders on a front line”.

It was the US-made Stinger missile that helped turn the tide against the Russian military in Afghanistan, allowing the Mujahideen to decimate Russia’s helicopters and aviation that hitherto had been inflicting huge losses on the Mujahideen.

As with providing weapons to Ukraine, providing military intel appears a natural recourse for an ally — if you have the means, use them — but it remains a risky gamble, says Anatol Lieven. Writing for Responsible Statecraft, the online magazine of the US-based Quincy Institute, he raises concerns in light of how Putin hasn’t prosecuted the conflict as much as he could have

“There in fact many ways that Russia can abandon its restraint so far and retaliate for the killing of its generals: cyber attacks on key Western infrastructure (widely predicted, but so far non-existent); the targeting with missiles and drones of U.S. offices and personnel in Kiev; the assassination of U.S. diplomats, military personnel, and intelligence officers in other countries; and warning shots aimed at NATO supply lines in Poland,” Lieven says. 

“Any of these actions would create a fierce reaction in the United States, and no-doubt renewed calls for a no-fly zone”, all of which could take the US toward directed armed confrontation with Russia, with the inevitable escalatory fallout that would almost certainly entail. 

If Russia were succeeding in Ukraine, Lieven says, the Kremlin might be more tolerant of US assistance to Ukraine. It is basically conducting war by proxy and keeping the embers of the Cold War alight. “But the Russian invasion of northern Ukraine was defeated and abandoned, and Russian forces are now making only glacial progress in eastern Ukraine.”

The homogeneity of response has an unsettling feeling of déjà-vu

The New York Times article notes that the intelligence being provided “also includes anticipated Russian troop movements gleaned from recent American assessments of Moscow’s secret battle plan for the fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine”.

Other unintended consequences of so much “lethal aid” include the possibility of US arms falling into the hands of the wrong people, as happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. There is also the direct cost to US taxpayers, who are already being hit by the highest inflation rate since 1981 and spiralling costs for daily living, much like those in the UK.

“Inflation, the global food and energy crises, supply chain disruptions — all are being exacerbated by a growing militarism that will only make the economic situation here and abroad much worse,” says Marshall Auerback, an economics commentator and a Research Associate for the New York-based Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

Helping Ukraine defend itself is obvious, but at the same time how do foreign governments limit the risks of escalation and knock-on global economic and security consequences? It’s not clear that the current US government is fully engaged in mitigating the latter. Does the West arm Ukraine to the point where it can fight until the last man standing, as opposed to considering other more diplomatic means of ending the conflict? 

We have only just closed the door on 20 years of involvement in Afghanistan, during which billions of dollars were allocated in the name of national security only to be wasted or even syphoned off by the merchants of the war’s boomtime side economy, as highlighted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

As with Covid-19, the homogeneity of the response by most mainstream media and governments toward the conflict in Ukraine has an unsettling feeling of déjà-vu about it. It usually takes those who have truly confronted the death’s head of war to bring us back to our senses.

“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative,” Eisenhower said. “Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.” 

He finishes the speech on a sombre, though honest and realistic note (reminding us that politicians used to dabble in such high-minded ways):

“As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war — as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years — I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight,” he said. “But, so much remains to be done.”

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