By Marc A. Thiessen
June 4, 2023
The Washington Post
As Ukraine begins its spring counteroffensive, a 60 percent majority of Republicans say we should stand with Ukraine until Russia is defeated, according to a Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll conducted in March. But GOP support is softening. The share of Republicans who say the United States is providing too much aid to Ukraine has steadily increased from 9 percent right after the Russian invasion to 40 percent in a Pew Research Center poll in January.
Many wavering Republicans are frustrated by the lack of a clear strategy for victory from the Biden administration. They hear Ukraine skeptics on the right arguing that the war is costing too much, depleting our military readiness, increasing the risk of nuclear confrontation with Russia and distracting us from the larger threat posed by Communist China. Some are beginning to ask whether U.S. support for Ukraine is really in the nation’s interest.
It’s a fair question. Most conservatives are not isolationists; they are reluctant internationalists, willing to support U.S. leadership on the world stage as long as they are convinced our national interest is involved. Altruistic arguments of solidarity with the Ukrainian people are not enough; conservatives demand an “America First” case for supporting Ukraine.
Here it is, in 10 clear points.
Russian victory would embolden our enemies
Ask yourself: Did President Biden’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine? Of course it did. And Putin watched Biden’s subsequent capitulation on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, and his reluctance to send Ukraine lethal military aid as Russia massed troops on Ukraine’s border. The Russian leader concluded that Biden was weak.
Now, imagine if Biden had followed the advice of those on the right who oppose aid and had refused to arm Ukraine. Putin would have taken Kyiv. And many of the same conservatives who are now criticizing the president for doing too much would have said: Biden is catastrophically weak. First, he let the Taliban march into Kabul, and now he has let the Russians march into Kyiv. And they would have been right.
If we cut off U.S. weapons, intelligence and other support today, Putin would prevail — and his victory would embolden our enemies from the Middle East to East Asia. A Russian victory would further popularize the “decline of the West” narrative, eroding U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia. China’s and Russia’s influence would rise at our expense. But the answer to Biden’s
weakness is not to push for further weakness by cutting off U.S. support; it is to push the administration to project strength by giving Ukraine the weapons it needs to prevail.
A Ukrainian victory will help deter China
If the Afghanistan debacle emboldened Putin, how much more would U.S. weakness in Ukraine embolden Chinese dictator Xi Jinping? The risk of war over Taiwan would skyrocket. And, unlike the war in Ukraine, it could very well involve U.S. troops.
Think of Xi’s calculation: If the United States won’t stand fast for Ukraine, an internationally recognized sovereign state, how likely is a stalwart defense of Taiwan, which is not? And if the United States is not willing to spend money to defend Ukraine, is it really going to risk American lives to defend Taiwan?
Failure to save Ukraine would decimate our credibility in defense of Taiwan, thus making war more likely. Our Asian allies certainly know that the outcome in Ukraine is critical to China’s thinking. While Xi was visiting Russia in March, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was visiting Ukraine. “Ukraine may be the East Asia of tomorrow,” Kishida has said, calling the fates of Ukraine and Taiwan “inseparable.”
Defeating Putin would weaken the Sino-Russian partnership
Xi seeks a Chinese-led global order that favors the world’s autocracies. In pursuit of that goal, he made a bet on Putin and has met with him some 40 times since assuming power in 2012. China’s “no limits” partnership with Russia “is a signature personal policy of Xi Jinping,” former Trump deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger tells me. “Putin’s defeat would do a lot of damage to Xi’s credibility” by making it clear the Chinese leader backed a loser.
Defeating Putin in Ukraine would strike a blow to the very heart of the emerging Sino-Russian alliance and restore the United States’ reputation for strength and reliability. Nations across the world would have incentives to deepen their trade, investment and security ties with the United States — at China’s expense. A Ukrainian victory would make the United States stronger, safer and more prosperous.
On the other hand, if Putin won in Ukraine, it would lead to the expansion of Chinese economic influence in Europe. Skeptical of U.S. strength, Europeans would likely return to doing business with Russia. The same doubts would drive our Asian allies to accelerate their own trade and investment with China. The United States would be weaker, less prosperous and less secure.
Support for Ukraine will restore the Reagan Doctrine
For most of the past two decades, U.S. foreign policy has followed the Bush Doctrine. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we would not wait to be struck again. We would fight
terrorists abroad so we did not have to face them here at home. The doctrine helped prevent catastrophic attacks in the United States, but, eventually, the constant combat footing exhausted America’s will to sacrifice the lives of U.S. troops. Sensing the exhaustion, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump — both skeptics of the Bush Doctrine — reduced the United States’ military footprint abroad.
Ronald Reagan was in a similar position when he was elected president in 1980. The Vietnam War had soured Americans on sending U.S. troops to fight in distant lands. So Reagan found anti-communist partners willing to fight our common enemies. They needed U.S. weapons, training and intelligence, as well as financial, diplomatic and humanitarian support. By providing assistance, Reagan helped freedom fighters from Central America to South Asia throw off the grip of an expansionist Russia — and won the Cold War.
In Ukraine, the Reagan Doctrine is making a comeback, reminding us that we can push back totalitarian aggression without getting directly involved in fighting wars abroad. Unfortunately, Joe Biden is no Ronald Reagan; he is only giving the Ukrainians enough weapons to stop Russia from winning, but not enough to help them drive the Russians out of their country in the same way Reagan helped drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.
Victory will save the U.S. billions
Russian adventurism is a drain on U.S. resources. By decimating the Russian military threat, Ukraine is reducing the amount of money the United States will have to spend defending Europe — without risking American lives to do it.
Russia might never regain the strength it has spent against Ukraine. Its military has suffered more combat deaths in Ukraine than in all of its wars since World War II — combined. Russia has lost about 2,000 tanks — more than half its operational fleet — plus thousands of other pieces of military equipment, including combat aircraft, combat vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, radar and antiaircraft systems, and at least 18 Navy ships. The British defense ministry estimates that 97 percent of the Russian army is now committed to Ukraine. For every Russian tank, plane and infantry division the Ukrainians eliminate, the United States will have to spend that much less to deter Russian aggression in the decades to come.
The impact will go beyond Europe. During the Obama administration, Russia intervened militarily in Syria on behalf of Iran and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Today, the war in Ukraine has flipped the script: Russia has been forced to reduce its presence in Syria and redeploy critical military hardware to Ukraine. And instead of Russia helping Iran, Iran is now shoring up Russia with weapons, including military drones.
Vanquishing Russia in Ukraine will produce a Russian “defeat dividend,” allowing the United States to redeploy resources from Europe to the Pacific theater to counter China. A Ukrainian victory will also create conditions of peace and stability in Europe that will expand trade and investment with our largest trading partners. Over time, it will allow the United States to
supplant Russia as the primary energy supplier to Europe. The financial benefits to Americans will be enormous.
On the other hand, for the United States, the costs of a Russian victory in Ukraine would be astronomical. “After absorbing Ukraine, Putin would likely absorb Belarus in a Russia-Ukraine-Belarus confederation,” former national security adviser Stephen Hadley tells me. This new Russian empire would threaten the borders of Romania, Slovakia and Poland. Putin would likely move against Moldova, the Baltic states and maybe even Poland, Hadley said, perhaps setting his sights on establishing a land bridge across NATO territory to the isolated Russian Baltic region of Kaliningrad. The Black Sea would essentially become a Russian lake, allowing Putin to threaten Southern Europe.
This new map would require the deployment of more U.S. troops to Europe, and massive increases in overall U.S. defense spending — because the United States would now have to defend Europe from a growing Russian threat while also preparing to defend its partners, allies and its own territory in the Pacific from Chinese aggression. In other words, arming Ukraine is a bargain compared with the alternative.
A proving ground for new weapons
The New York Times reports: “Ukraine has become a testing ground for state-of-the-art weapons and information systems, and new ways to use them, that Western political officials and military commanders predict could shape warfare for generations to come.”
For example, Ukrainian forces have deployed a new real-time information system known as Delta — a cloud-based, network-centric warfare system that allows Ukrainian forces, local officials and even vetted civilian bystanders to use laptops, tablets and mobile phones to share details about the location and capability of Russian forces. “The software, developed in coordination with NATO, had barely been tested in battle,” the Times reports, but Ukrainian forces employed it “to push the Russians out of towns and villages they had occupied for months.”
Ukrainian forces are also testing new sea drones — including explosive uncrewed surface vessels — combining them with aerial drones to take out much larger Russian warships. The Ukrainians have carried out complex assaults on Russian naval forces off the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, destroying nearly 20 Russian vessels, including the Moskva, the pride of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Capabilities and concepts tested in the Black Sea could be crucial in resisting a Chinese assault in the Taiwan Strait.
Ukraine is also testing Lithuanian antidrone weapons known as Sky Wipers, never before used in combat. The Pentagon is sending Ukraine experimental antidrone missiles to take down Iran-built Shahed-136 self-detonating drones. Indeed, Ukraine has put out an offer to U.S. defense manufacturers to bring their latest gear to Ukraine to try it out in live combat situations.
New strategic doctrines developed by the U.S. military also are facing real-world tests. The “Resistance Operating Concept,” for example, provides a blueprint for how smaller nations can effectively resist a larger invading neighbor. “The doctrine, also known as the ROC, provides an innovative and unconventional approach to warfare and total defense that has guided not just Ukraine’s military, but also involved the country’s civilian population as part of a concerted resistance against Russia’s army,” CNN reports. The lessons learned on the battlefield in Ukraine could be used to help Taiwan — sending Beijing a message that even if it succeeds in crossing the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan can successfully repel a Chinese invasion on the ground.
Finally, after years of the United States fighting non-state actors, the war in Ukraine is reorienting the U.S. military to prepare for great-power conflict. The axiom goes that militaries always prepare to fight the last war — which for Americans is an anti-terrorism war focused on counterinsurgency.
Suddenly, U.S. military planners found themselves focused on helping defeat a conventional military. In Ukraine, the Pentagon is able to test U.S. capabilities and strategies in real battlefield conditions instead of having to guess how an adversary will react in a war game — all without having to put American soldiers at risk. This is transforming our military for the threats we are likely to face in the 21st century. While a war with China would differ from Ukraine in important ways, this preparation for great-power conflict will enhance our ability to deter aggression before it happens.
Arming Ukraine is revitalizing our defense industrial base
Money that Congress has allocated to arm Ukraine is not being spent in Ukraine. It’s going primarily to Americans — either to replace weapons sent to Ukraine from U.S. stockpiles or to build the weapons we send to Kyiv. “When we’re talking about giving assistance to Ukraine … these [weapons systems] are produced by American or Allied and partner countries,” explained Seth Jones, the director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They are produced by General Dynamics, by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, by Boeing in some cases. … And they’re being built in most cases in the United States.”
Aid to Ukraine creates jobs in the United States and energizes its defense industrial base, which had dangerously atrophied after the Cold War. Jones recently conducted a series of U.S.-China war games and found that the United States, without stepped-up production, would run out of precision weapons within a week after fighting began.
Moreover, the weapons being sent to Ukraine will not dull the United States’ readiness to defend Taiwan. The U.S. military strategy there is to deny an aggressor the ability to cross the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait for a landing. This isn’t a job for howitzers, HIMARS or armored vehicles; it’s a job for F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, B-2 and soon-to-be-deployed B-21 bombers, nuclear submarines and long-range anti-ship missiles. “We’re giving none of those capabilities to Ukraine,” Fred Kagan, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project,
told me. “So, the argument that our aid to Ukraine is somehow putting Taiwan at greater risk militarily is fallacious.”
We are also benefiting from the assistance provided to Ukraine by our NATO partners. With their significant donations of military equipment to Ukraine, allies are in the process of replacing their antiquated Soviet-era weapons systems with newer, modern systems that are NATO interoperable — many of them produced by the United States. American workers, the military and the United States’ vital defense industries are the beneficiaries.
The Russian invasion has strengthened U.S. alliances
Putin intended his invasion to weaken NATO and break U.S.-led alliances, so that his country could restore its imperial borders, and so China could have free rein in the Pacific. Instead, it has done the opposite.
Sixteen NATO allies (more than half the alliance’s members) increased defense spending in 2022, while an additional seven countries have pledged to raise defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product in the near term. Indeed, as a percentage of GDP, the United States is tied for ninth in spending on Ukraine, behind Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Britain. Bulgaria and Finland each contribute nearly the same percentage of GDP as the United States.
Even Germany is beginning to step up. Despite being the wealthiest country in Europe, Germany was spending only about 1.4 percent of its GDP on defense, but after the Russian invasion, Berlin announced more than $100 billion to modernize its military, which, “if implemented, would represent the largest absolute jump in German military spending since World War II,” the New York Times reports. Germany has also contributed more than $8 billion for Ukraine, with an additional $3 billion promised.
Putin’s catastrophic miscalculation prompted Sweden and Finland to abandon decades of neutrality and join NATO. While waiting for all the formalities to be finished, the new allies announced they will integrate their air forces with existing NATO members Norway and Denmark in a unified Nordic air defense — creating a combined force of 250 fighters that will defend a new 830-mile Nordic NATO frontier with Russia.
In the Pacific, Japan announced plans to raise its defense spending by $287 billion over the next five years — a nearly 60 percent increase that will give Japan the third-largest defense budget in the world. South Korea is also raising defense spending, and it recently approved the transfer of howitzers to Ukraine. U.S. support for Ukraine has awakened our Asian allies, who would be critical partners in a successful defense of Taiwan.
The ultimate ally in this cause is Ukraine itself, which is doing the fighting and suffering the losses. All it is asking for are the tools to resist our common enemy. Is there a better burden-sharing deal for the United States than providing the weapons to destroy the Russian military while Ukraine takes the casualties?
Victory helps prevent nuclear proliferation
This war is happening because Ukraine surrendered its post-Soviet nuclear arsenal at our insistence. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine inherited nearly 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons, along with the missiles and strategic bombers to deliver them. If Ukraine still had those weapons, Russia would never have invaded.
But in December 1994, the Clinton administration brokered an agreement called the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Ukraine agreed to give up those weapons. In exchange, the United States and Britain promised “to provide assistance to Ukraine … if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression,” while Russia pledged to “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”
Russia’s failure to live up to its pledge makes it essential that we live up to ours. Otherwise, nations around the world will conclude that they must develop their own nuclear weapons to safeguard their borders. Furthermore, would-be aggressors will use their nuclear arsenals as licenses to invade non-nuclear neighbors and deter us from helping them by conventional means. If Russia is allowed to conquer Ukraine while threatening to use nukes, Beijing might conclude it is free to invade Taiwan and leverage its own nuclear arsenal to prevent the United States and its allies from aiding Taiwan’s defense. North Korea might conclude it should speed the development of missiles capable of reaching the U.S. homeland so it can achieve its long-standing goal of reunifying the Korean Peninsula. Iran might conclude that breaking out as a nuclear power will deter the United States from defending Israel.
And if Iran gets nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia has pledged to become a nuclear power as well, and other Persian Gulf states will follow suit — which would mean a Sunni-Shiite nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Japan and South Korea could conclude that our nuclear umbrella is full of holes, and acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Nuclear nonproliferation will be dead, and the number of nuclear powers in the world will mushroom.
Few national interests are more clear-cut than keeping the nuclear genie in its bottle. Failure in Ukraine would mean more nuclear states and more wars of aggression, and would inevitably raise the risk that a conflict will spin out of control. In short, giving in to Putin is far more likely to bring on World War III than standing up to him.
Victory in Ukraine is achievable
Current and former U.S. military leaders say Ukraine can win — if given the necessary weapons to prevail. Retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army, told me that Ukraine needs tanks and armored vehicles to carry infantry; long-range precision artillery; air-defense systems; and advanced fighter jets. “Those are the ingredients to be successful,” Keane said. “And if you don’t have those ingredients, you cannot take the territory that you want to take in the time that you want to take it.”
The administration is either withholding or slow-rolling delivery of those key ingredients. After resisting for nearly year, the Biden administration finally agreed in January to provide M1A1 Abrams tanks. But instead of sending the tanks from our pre-positioned stockpiles in Europe (in time to be used during Ukraine’s spring offensive), the administration decided to manufacture new ones that will take a year or more to deliver. Now, Biden is reportedly switching gears again and sending tanks from the U.S. military’s existing inventory that could arrive in “months.”
The same is true when it comes to long-range artillery and air power. After months of resistance, the administration finally provided Ukraine with HIMARS last May — but secretly modified them so they couldn’t fire long-range rockets. Biden still refuses to provide Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) with a 190-mile range, out of concern that the Ukrainians could theoretically hit targets inside Russia. And despite the urging of a bipartisan group of senators, Biden is refusing to send F-16 fighter jets — “for now,” he says. (He is allowing Ukrainian pilots to train on F-16s.)
For now? What is he waiting for? Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the supreme allied commander in Europe, recently told a group of senators and congressmen in a closed-door briefing that if the United States were to provide F-16s and longer-range missiles, Ukraine could win the war. Victory is what the American people want. Sixty-seven percent of Americans say the United States should support Ukraine “until Russia pulls all invading forces from its territory or is defeated on the battlefield.” Right now, the only thing preventing this is a lack of American weapons driven by a lack of American presidential will. It’s time to summon that will and end this war — in victory.
Of course, the most powerful argument is the one I have not made yet: Helping Ukraine is the right thing to do. It is the American thing to do. As Reagan explained 40 years ago during his “Evil Empire” speech, the United States cannot remove itself “from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil” because “America has kept alight the torch of freedom, not just for ourselves, but for millions of others around the world.” Those words ring as true today as they did in Reagan’s time. The war in Ukraine is a struggle between right and wrong and good and evil, and in that struggle, America must not remain neutral.
Even this is a matter of self-interest. Since the end of the Cold War, democratic self-government has spread throughout the world. The dramatic expansion of human freedom has unleashed an unprecedented expansion of peace, stability and prosperity at home and abroad.
But even those unpersuaded by Reagan’s call to oppose evil can still agree with him that the United States must pursue “peace through strength.”
The “America First” isolationists of the 1930s hoped to avoid a repeat of the carnage of the First World War, which took some 20 million lives. Instead, their failure to resist Adolf Hitler’s rise invited the Second World War, which took 60 million lives. Allowing Hitler to seize the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia did not appease the dictator nor deliver “peace for our time.” It only whetted Hitler’s appetite, and the appetites of other expansionist powers, for conquest. The same will be true if we allow Putin to seize Ukraine.
The lesson of the 20th century is that putting “America First” requires us to project strength and deter our enemies from launching wars of aggression — so that U.S. troops to don’t have to fight and die in another global conflagration. The invasion in Ukraine was a failure of deterrence. Only by helping Ukraine win can we prevent further deterrence failures.
If we help Ukraine prevail, we can rewrite the narrative of U.S. weakness; restore deterrence with China; strike a blow against the Sino-Russian alliance; decimate the Russian threat to Europe; increase burden-sharing with our allies; improve our military preparedness for other adversaries; stop a global nuclear arms race; dissuade other nuclear states from launching wars of aggression; and make World War III less likely.
The “America First” conclusion: Helping Ukraine is a supreme national interest.