Oct 16, 2023
The Cipher Brie
EXPERT PERSPECTIVE / OPINION — Prior to the horrific events of 7 October 2023, the issue of providing Ukraine with military assistance was likely the most debated and discussed subject in the media, Think Tanks and within the U.S. Government. Discussions on this issue included the types of weapons systems the U.S. should or should not provide the Ukrainians, the volume of military assistance the U.S. should provide, and how Americans felt the Ukrainians should conduct their counter-offensive against the Russians.
Even before Hamas launched its terrorist attacks in Israel, continued military assistance to Ukraine was a hotly contested issue in the U.S., with many Americans expressing doubts about the wisdom and importance of continued U.S. military support for Ukraine. Following Hamas’s horrific attack inside Israel and the resulting spike in tensions in the already volatile Middle East, many Americans are questioning whether the U.S. can afford to provide assistance to both Tel Aviv and Kyiv at the same time. Unfortunately, the ongoing debate over military assistance to Ukraine receives much more attention in the U.S. than a discussion on other types of help Washington should be providing the Ukrainians.
Even prior to Moscow’s February 2022 expanded invasion of Ukraine, the people of Ukraine were in need of economic and humanitarian assistance, and Russia’s barbaric targeting of civilian infrastructure and efforts to strangle the Ukrainian economy have made the topic of providing non-military assistance to the Ukrainians extremely important and a subject that requires the same amount of attention as that of the provision of military help. According to World Bank Estimates, Ukraine will require close to 411 billion USD to recover from the damage done by Putin’s war. While The U.S. and its Western allies have pledged over 150 billion USD in financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, simple mathematics show that much more will be required to rebuild.
This message seems like a difficult “pill to swallow” for many Americans and Europeans given the economic challenges facing Washington and Brussels. So, it is important to understand why providing more aid to Ukraine is essential and, also important for America and Europe’s National Security Interests.
In the 1990’s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians had hopes of seeing their own country, the Russian Federation, transform into a economically healthy, stable, rules based society where they had the right to express their views openly without fear of repercussions and where they could elect their political leaders. Unfortunately, given the depth of the economic problems they, like other former Soviet Republics, inherited from the failed Soviet system, they quickly saw that the expectation that such a transformation would be quick and simple, proved very mistaken.
Russia struggled throughout the early and mid-1990s and average Russians were forced to live through an extremely difficult time. Many soon became disenchanted with their earlier dreams of some type of propensity and men like Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to exploit their disenchantment and frustrations by blaming Russia’s problems on the outside world and working to tap into the Russian people’s fears to seize power for himself and his “clan”, by promising to bring Russia stability, respect and power.
Taking advantage of Russia’s natural resources and exports of oil, gas and other precious resources, Russia’s economy did grow and Putin did bring the Russian people some growth and sense of progress. But by 2014, Russia’s economic growth was slowing and it was becoming clear to Russians that Putin and those around him were benefiting personally from the sale of the country’s natural resources, while the average Russian was not.
Further, they saw that Putin’s ego was driving their country further away from the West and into the arms of countries like the People’s Republic of China (PRC), North Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Russians, who had been able to travel to Spain, Italy or the U.S. in the early 2000s, and who had started small and medium sized businesses, started to see their money disappear and opportunities dry up. They also saw Putin’s aggressive policies were alienating them from Europe and the U.S.
While Ukrainians also suffered from the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, with time the Ukrainians started to move in a different direction from Moscow. Despite not having the oil and gas resources of Russia, Ukraine managed to move towards, not away from, Europe and despite Moscow’s efforts to impose its own chosen leader on the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainians were able to elect their own President and political representatives.
While messy and often corrupt, Ukrainian democracy was developing and Ukrainians were becoming accepted by the West as partners. The Russians were watching Ukraine’s transformation with envy and Putin understood that if Ukraine were to be successful in integrating with the West, it would significantly undermine his standing in Russia by forcing Russians to ask why their “little brothers” in Ukraine were living better, and with more say in their futures, than they were. In short, Ukraine’s development is a threat to Putin and to those who keep him in power.
Understanding this, the U.S. and its Western allies need to view Ukraine as a “lighthouse” or “beacon” of inspiration for those Russians who are already questioning why they are living in a closed society that is sliding backwards economically, when their neighbors are prospering.
Ukraine is the ‘West Berlin’ of today’s Cold War with Russia. A symbol of development and hope for those stuck behind an artificially created barrier and inspiration for those people to knock down that wall. As Ukraine is rebuilt, the psychological impact on average Russians will be significant.
As we consider ways to invest in our own future by helping the Ukrainians, Americans and Europeans should also understand that the Ukrainians themselves are not waiting for the war with Russia to end to start their efforts for recovery.
During a recent visit to Ukraine, almost every Ukrainian official I met with spoke about how they were already starting to work to rebuild their country. The Ukrainians are looking toward the future as they fight like hell to defend their country. They understand that they cannot wait for the war to end, given Putin’s effort to drag the war on for as long as possible in hopes of wearing out the Ukrainians, and more importantly, Kyiv’s allies in the West.
We, in the West, also need to understand that we cannot afford to wait to invest in Ukraine’s recovery. Every dollar or Euro invested in Ukraine today is an investment in undermining the root cause of this conflict, Putin and his ego. At this point, many are asking whether or not the U.S. or Europe can afford to help Ukraine militarily and financially. This question is especially relevant after Hamas’ October attacks against the State of Israel and its citizens and in the face of Tel Aviv’s war to protect its very existence and need for Western assistance. While some may argue that we cannot help Ukraine and Israel at the same time, those that make that argument should remember that the investment in protecting Ukraine and Israel’s survival is a direct investment in our own futures.
If Putin or Hamas are successful in annihilating their targets, it will only lead to a further spread of their aggressive behaviors and a greater need to allocate resources to try to stop growing threats to Western civilization. And if we fail in Ukraine or Israel, then the war will soon be on our own doorstep, and it may be too late to reverse the very dangerous ideologies that drive the thinking of men like Putin or the Supreme Leader of Iran and his surrogates in Hamas.
If the United States had not entered the Second World War in December 1941, it is hard to imagine what would have happened in Europe and the Pacific and at what point we would have had to deal with the threat of Fascist or Imperial Japanese forces threatening our very homeland.
And those who question our ability to help Tel Aviv and Kyiv, while also dealing with domestic issues like the need to secure our Southern Border or modernize our own infrastructure and better protect, long term our environment, should remember that by 1943, the U.S. was fighting a three-front war, in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific while also serving as the “Arsenal of Democracy” and providing other members of the anti-Fascist alliance with weapons, food, medical supplies and other critical assistance needed to win.
Americans of that generation were asked to make some sacrifices but lived exceptionally well in comparison to many of their counterparts in Europe and the Pacific. During and after the war, Americans were extremely proud of what they accomplished and then played a key role in helping to rebuild Western Europe, Japan and Korea, investments that produced long term, critical allies and reliable trade partners for the United States.
When some in the West question whether or not we can sustain our own growth and prosperity while helping our allies in Tel Aviv and Kyiv, the answer should be clear. We have a moral obligation to continue step up and help our allies in Tel Aviv, Kyiv and other country that is faced with the threat of aggression by a neighbor trying to terrorize them. And, we have a very real self-interest in investing now in our own future.
The Cipher Brief is committed to publishing a range of perspectives on national security issues submitted by deeply experienced national security professionals.
Glenn Corn is a former Senior Executive in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who worked for 34 years in the U.S. Intelligence, Defense, and Foreign Affairs communities. He spent over 17 years serving overseas and served as the U.S. President’s Senior Representative on Intelligence and Security issues. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of World Politics.