By Lee Hockstader
December 5, 2023
The Washington Post
PARIS — There are various paths to the conclusion that U.S. taxpayers are getting a bargain by backing Ukraine’s war for survival. One is to ask: Yes, it’s expensive, but compared with what? At nearly $70 billion in less than two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion, the direct U.S. military, financial and humanitarian commitment to Ukraine is unquestionably significant. In just 21 months, Washington’s direct aid to Ukraine comes to more than one-fifth of its inflation-adjusted funding for Israel since its founding 75 years ago.
Yet by other measures, the pot of money approved by Congress to resist Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression looks modest. That’s important to bear in mind, as future funding for Kyiv is mired on Capitol Hill, with some Republicans asserting that Americans have done enough, and with funding increasingly also at risk in Europe, where ascendant right-wing populists oppose it.
Nearly half of Americans now say the United States is spending too much on Ukraine. Yet at this point, U.S. allies in Europe have promised nearly twice the amount approved by Congress, according to the Kiel Institute, which tracks contributions. There is a tussle within the European Union over a chunk of its pledge for Ukraine, roughly $55 billion in budget support through 2027, which Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a darling of MAGA Republicans, has threatened to hold up. But E.U. diplomats remain convinced the money will be delivered eventually.
Altogether, the U.S. share amounts to less than one-third of all outside funding directed to helping Ukraine stave off Russia’s onslaught. If you measure each donor country’s contribution against its gross domestic product, the U.S. burden is less than about 20 other countries’. In fact, by that measure, the United States is sacrificing less than big countries such as Germany and Britain, as well as smaller ones on Europe’s eastern flank, some of which reasonably fear they will be next on Moscow’s menu if Putin succeeds in Ukraine.
Those fears in Eastern Europe buttress the odds that the long-term return will more than justify the U.S. investment. If Russia were to move against NATO allies such as the tiny Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, let alone Poland or some other large NATO ally — hardly a far-fetched scenario, given 20th-century history — Washington would be obligated by its treaty commitments to send troops to defend them.
The cost of deploying U.S. troops to defend vulnerable NATO allies against a nuclear-armed power is imponderable. It would surely be huge, judging by the price paid for other U.S. wars in this century, which dwarf Congress’s appropriations for Ukraine.
Brown University researchers who studied the cost of America’s post-9/11 conflicts found that 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria drained $8 trillion from U.S. coffers — about one-quarter of that sum in future dollars earmarked for U.S. military veterans.
President Biden, citing the Brown study, noted that the Afghan war alone cost taxpayers more than $300 million per day for two decades. That’s about triple what the United States has spent daily for Ukraine, after roughly 650 days.
Even if one accepts the government’s own estimates for the cost of the post-9/11 wars — based on the Pentagon’s much narrower criteria, as well as opaque accounting methods — the price comes to $1.6 trillion over two decades. If you narrow it down to just between 2007 and 2008, a period of heavy fighting by U.S. troops roughly equivalent to the nearly two-year span since Russia invaded Ukraine, Washington’s support for Ukraine is still slight by comparison.
Granted, that’s an apples-and-oranges juxtaposition. Nearly 200,000 U.S. troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. None have fought in Ukraine over the past two years. Yet if you assess what each commitment has purchased, U.S. support for Ukraine seems like an even better deal.
In Iraq, it seems clear, U.S. policy yielded little beyond misery and reputational damage. In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has been largely eliminated as a credible threat. But as my colleague David Ignatius has pointed out, that was largely the result of a recent crackdown by the Taliban, which the United States fought, and failed to defeat.
In Ukraine, the long-term value of U.S. funding will depend largely on the war’s outcome. So far, however, U.S. resolve has at least temporarily sapped Putin’s ability to threaten America’s NATO allies and weakened the Russian economy on which that threat depends. U.S. resolve has also sent a potent deterrent message to China and North Korea that they menace Taiwan and South Korea at their peril.
No one can assess the cost savings delivered by deterrence at that scale. But by any rational accounting, the United States wins big by diminishing the likelihood of potential future wars in Eastern Europe, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula.
Lee Hockstader has been The Post’s European Affairs columnist, based in Paris, since 2023. Previously he was a member of the Post editorial board; a national correspondent, a foreign correspondent, and a local reporter. He was awarded The Post’s Eugene Meyer Award for lifetime achievement in 2014 Twitter