March 22, 2022
A superb analysis of Putin’s savage invasion of Ukraine written by Oregon Representative Marty Wilde. Rep. Wilde’s military experience includes deployment in Afghanistan as a member of the International Security Assistance Force.
Last month, Russia invaded Ukraine in the largest military operation in Europe since World War II. Putin launched this campaign expressly to destroy Ukraine’s military and overthrow its democratically-elected government, violating an earlier agreement to respect its borders in exchange for Ukraine giving up nuclear weapons. In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested military aid and direct US military action to save his country. To be effective, the US aid must match Ukraine’s needs with our capacity and squarely confront the potential for escalation.
What Does Ukraine Need?
Ukraine’s military most pressing needs are for defensive short range anti-armor systems and protective large-scale anti-air weapons systems. US aid has focused on small, portable systems, such as the Javelin anti-tank missile and Stinger anti-air missile. The Ukrainian military has used these well against Russian forces with longer-range weapons. I can’t imagine the bravery it takes to sneak up on foot on a tank that can shoot someone from miles away or to try to shoot down a heavily armed Russian Hind attack helicopter with only a small, hand-carried missile.
But these short-range systems cannot prevent aerial bombardment and the ongoing murder of civilians by missiles. US weapons like F-16 aircraft and Patriot air defense missiles could save lives, but their use would require us to enter the conflict directly or provide lengthy training. Instead, we are encouraging former Warsaw Pact countries to transfer their more familiar anti-air and anti-missile systems to Ukraine, in exchange receiving US equipment and training. For example, I expect that we will see Slovakia and Bulgaria give their S-300 air defense systems to Ukraine, in exchange for deployments of US air defense units to protect them.
The US as the Arsenal of Democracy
During World War II, the US provided $700 billion (in 2022 dollars) worth of planes, ships, tanks, and other military supplies to the UK, the Soviet Union, France, China, and others. This amounted to about 17% of the total war expenditures for the U.S. During just the first year of this “Lend Lease” program, we budgeted $182 billion. Since 2014, the US has delivered only about $3 billion in military support for Ukraine, with about $3.5 billion more budgeted. For comparison, the US Department of Defense budget is about $728 billion this year. We can do a lot more to support Ukraine, even without direct participation in the conflict.
Does Might Make Right?
While we consider the use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons unthinkable, Putin is actively considering the use of weapons of mass destruction. The Russian military does not draw a clear distinction between large conventional munitions like fuel-air explosives and tactical nuclear weapons. In comparison with the available alternatives, chemical weapons are not very useful against military targets, but they are effective terror weapons against civilians. Putin has already committed war crimes by targeting civilians directly with heavy munitions to try to force a surrender. He will likely escalate, regardless of US actions.
We must face the horror of these weapons directly. In the last decade, both Republican and Democratic Presidents engaged in missile strikes against the military units employing chemical weapons. In the Ukrainian context, that would mean US forces taking direct military action against Russian forces, with all the danger of escalation that entails. While no one wants that to happen, we should not pretend that the alternatives are all worse.
If we do not do more to support Ukraine, Russia will subjugate or divide Ukraine, which would allow Putin to credibly threaten other countries on his periphery, including Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland, some of which are NATO treaty allies. It would mark a significant advance for authoritarian regimes, especially if the lack of a strong response now encourages Putin to escalate to using weapons of mass destruction. A world in which any of the increasing number of nuclear powers can simply threaten to use these weapons to prevent any response to invasions of its neighbors is truly a world where might makes right.
Ukraine needs much more than the military support we currently provide. That likely means deploying tens of thousands of more US troops to Eastern Europe with US-built air defense systems to replace the Soviet-era equipment our allies will provide Ukraine. These troops will also have a long-term mission to train our allies in their own defense. The additional resources provided by US and allied countries would allow Ukraine to resist the Russian invasion more effectively. In turn, this could force a Russian withdrawal or settlement on terms favorable to a free and democratic Ukraine.
As Thomas Paine wrote, “These are times that try men’s souls.” After the long slogs of Iraq and Afghanistan, we yearn for a time of peace. But while we may not be interested in war, war is interested in us. If we do not answer the call to defend democracy, Putin’s aggression will not stop in Ukraine.