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Why U.S. military aid is working in Ukraine

The amount pales in comparison to what America spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the results have been spectacular.
Image: American missile support to Ukraine
Ukrainian servicemen load a truck with the FGM-148 Javelin, American made-portable anti-tank missiles provided by U.S. to Ukraine, at Kyiv's airport Boryspil on Feb. 11.Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images file

The U.S. is poised to send $40 billion in aid to Ukraine after the House approved the assistance package on Tuesday. Though the funds are temporarily stalled in the Senate due to an objection from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, the measure is expected to go through in the coming week, with nearly $15 billion for military aid. It will bring total U.S. support to Ukraine since the beginning of the war to more than $53 billion.

These numbers might seem staggering, but they pale in comparison to the amounts Washington spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in Vietnam for that matter. Yet the result has been vastly more effective. 

Washington wisely arranged for Ukraine to receive the Soviet-style weapons its military knew how to operate and maintain rather than reflexively favoring U.S.-made equipment.

Despite tens of billions of dollars spent rebuilding militaries from scratch in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter infamously melted away in 2021 before the U.S. could complete its withdrawal from the country. Meanwhile, Iraq’s military nearly collapsed after the Islamic State militant group emerged in 2013, requiring massive injections of foreign air power, advisers and financial aid to drive ISIS out of Iraqi territory. And after more than a decade of U.S. military support, South Vietnam fell to a North Vietnamese invasion in 1975 two years after the U.S. withdrew. 

In contrast, Ukraine has been an immense success story. Why is that?

Well, to begin with, Ukrainian society as a whole was willing to fight in defense of its country. The government wasn’t reliant on the U.S. military to prop it up and to cajole reluctant recruits to defend it. And despite political divisions, over time, the Ukrainian people grew to favor closer relations with Western Europe and the United States. In contrast, arms, money and the blood of thousands of U.S. troops couldn’t infuse Western-oriented governments in South Vietnam and Afghanistan with popular support. 

Ukraine’s spirit of national resistance has also meant that most of the U.S. arms transferred to local forces have been used for their intended purpose. In contrast, corruption and disloyalty (and ineptness) saw huge quantities of U.S. military aid to Afghanistan, Iraq and South Vietnam go missing and even end up with enemy forces.

In Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO are helping the country build on its existing strengths instead of reinventing the military top to bottom — as the U.S. had to do in Iraq when it foolishly disbanded the entire military after routing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In Ukraine, beginning in 2014 when the war in eastern part of the country broke out, Washington instead enabled Kyiv to make better use of its huge inventory of Soviet artillery and armored vehicles through modernized training and tactics.

It also focused on delivering mostly nonlethal systems that allowed Ukrainian troops to use the firepower they already had more effectively, such as counter-battery radars that have helped Ukrainian forces detect artillery attacks, night-vision goggles that allow Ukrainian units to operate at times Russian units can’t and secure communication systems that protect their troop locations. 

When it became evident Ukraine was at high risk of being fully invaded by Russia earlier this year, U.S. and British defense officials correctly shifted to providing the kinds of lethal weapons that could be quickly delivered in large quantities and fielded rapidly for maximum impact. In particular, thousands of advanced portable Javelin and Stinger missiles that have light logistical and training requirements and have been ideal for ambushing Russian armored columns or shooting down low-flying helicopters and planes. 

This is a smart change from giving Abrams tanks to Iraq and Blackhawk helicopters to Afghanistan that indigenous personnel struggled to maintain without copious support from American contractors

It’s also been crucial that the White House helped Ukrainians bog down the more powerful Russian military without deploying American combat troops or aircraft into the battle zone. That has no doubt helped U.S. domestic support for Ukraine remain high — while giving Kyiv more agency to manage the war as it sees fit and reducing the risk of Ukrainian forces becoming dependent on direct U.S. support. 

Part of what allowed the U.S. to avoid putting troops in harm’s way is that it has shifted to training Ukrainian soldiers in European countries ever since Putin began intensified hostilities. 

Some critics argue that President Joe Biden should have armed Ukraine more heavily before or at the start of the war with jet fighters or Patriot missiles. But Biden had to consider the possibility that Ukraine might collapse in a few days before a Russian onslaught, as some intelligence analysts predicted, allowing weapons to fall into Russian hands before the Ukrainians could even use them.

Furthermore, Biden had to avoid arming Ukraine in ways that Moscow could have seized on to justify launching an invasion. Putin ended up having to attack without that rationale, putting him in a weaker position.

The Biden administration, however, was nimble enough to change course as circumstances allowed. When it became evident Ukraine wouldn’t succumb to a knockout blow, Biden and other NATO allies transferred heavier and more advanced weapons

In Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO are helping the country build on its existing strengths instead of reinventing the military top to bottom — as the U.S. had to do in Iraq when it foolishly disbanded the entire military.

When it did so, Washington wisely arranged for Ukraine to receive the Soviet-style weapons its military knew how to operate and maintain rather than reflexively favoring U.S.-made equipment. Though the U.S. didn’t have lots of Soviet weaponry on hand, it had NATO allies like Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic that did. So the Biden administration convinced those countries to shuffle older Soviet tanks, artillery, aircraft parts and munitions to Ukraine while promising to backfill their inventory with more modern U.S. systems. That enhanced the military capability of NATO allies while freeing up weapons Ukraine could use immediately in its fight for survival.

That said, Washington has furnished some simpler American-built systems Ukraine could adopt comparatively easily, such as armored Humvees, howitzers and Switchblade kamikaze drones. In remarkably short time, the Pentagon also developed and delivered a customized attack drone specifically for Ukraine to use against armored targets, and mysterious “coastal defense” drone vessels that the U.S. Navy hasn’t officially begun to use.

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In the coming months and years, U.S. aid will likely shift toward more advanced capabilities that will take longer to integrate, perhaps including fighter jets, long-endurance combat drones and anti-ship missiles. But that’s only possible now because resolute and tactically proficient Ukrainian troops, aided by the Javelins, halted Russia at the war’s start.

While no one should be taking a self-congratulatory victory lap in this awful and unconcluded war, the Biden administration deserves credit for carefully calibrating its military support better than the U.S. has in other conflicts. These are hard-learned but important lessons that will, it's hoped, serve the country well the next time it considers intervention.