What price blood, sweat, and tears? 200,000-plus people are dead, millions maimed and traumatized, and a trillion-dollar bill for reconstruction looms. Even in the best case, months of more misery lie ahead.
Ukrainians do not begrudge the sacrifice. They have seen how Russia treats people in its “liberated” territories. Better to risk death than to live like that.
Most in the West do not begrudge Ukrainian sacrifice either. It is most convenient that other people are willing to die for our freedom, blunting Russian aggression and weakening the Kremlin’s armed forces. It will take years for Russia to recover its losses. Whatever happens in Ukraine, the West has gained precious time to sort out its own security. As a sign of our gratitude, we have promised more weapons and may even send some of them soon.
Others think even that approach is too robust. A minority view, exemplified by last weekend’s demonstrations in some Western capitals, regards the Ukrainians as troublemakers or deluded pawns of the western military-industrial complex. These people are misguided to defend their country so stubbornly. They should realize that even the worst peace is better than the best war. Every day that the fighting continues increases the risk of escalation and of a wider east-west conflict. It hikes food and fuel prices and distracts us from other urgent issues.
Ukrainians are amazingly patient about this self-indulgent, introverted debate among their friends. But the reality is that outside help is still too little, and too late. If big Western countries at the start of 2022 had provided even a tiny fraction of the military, diplomatic, and financial support that they are offering now, the war would never have started; Ukraine would have been too well-protected. The earlier and greater the help, the less the damage and the closer we would be to victory.
As the economist Adam Tooze points out in the Financial Times, the cost of the war in the West has been trivial by the standards of past military adventures. The United States has so far spent 0.21% of its GDP on Ukraine — rather less than the average it spent annually on its botched engagement in Afghanistan. During the first Gulf War in 1991, Germany offered three times more to help the allies evict Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi occupiers from faraway Kuwait than it is providing in bilateral aid to Ukraine now.
Why is the West so hesitant? One theory is that we fear Ukrainian victory. We will supply only enough money and weapons so that Russia does not win, and not enough to ensure that it loses decisively. Such a cynical approach could not, I think, be kept secret among the governments concerned for so long.
More likely is that the West lacks political and economic capacity. We wish the ends, but not the means. Our military stockpiles are too skinny. Vladimir Putin is willing to switch Russia to a war economy and take huge hits to living standards and long-term growth. We are not.
The big question is whether this is just a temporary failure of political will, or something deeper. Ukrainians hope that the logic of events and their own lobbying will eventually produce the needed help. A gloomier interpretation is that Western political systems, faced with huge problems—climate change, the north-south injustices of the world economy, and the threat of pandemic diseases—simply lack the necessary decision-making capability. We are similarly helpless against the global axis of autocracy now taking shape between Beijing and Moscow via Tehran.
We will see. But what is clear is that while we dither, Ukraine bleeds.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.