It is a time of stark choices.
The United States has channeled considerable resources to sustain Ukraine’s embattled democracy in its fight against Russian imperialism. To win, Ukraine will need more, as President Biden set out in his Oval Office speech on October 19.
There is an alternative, of course. The US can end its aid and draw in its horns, but the country should understand that this is not a cost-free answer. The US would lose allies, influence, and trade globally. It’s very hard to put a number on the damage that would be done — some of it isn’t financial — but it is fair to believe that it would be far in excess of the $76bn the US sent to Ukraine last year.
The free world’s main Russia problem is that the Kremlin’s current occupant has made his country the creature of his will. Vladimir Putin has extensive imperial ambitions and you cannot circumvent this fact; he is not willing to negotiate on the matter. Putin has the means of war and is using them.
It is tempting to think that Putin is unique, but that is not the case. A majority of Russian citizens support the war and see it as justified. It is therefore the case that even if Putin fell under a bus, his successor as supreme leader would have the same geopolitical outlook.
This is a hard thing to accept for Americans and others in Europe who feel their distant wars of the early 21st century represented a squandering of blood and treasure. Why, it is asked, does the US always need to engage in these fights far from its borders?
The answer in Ukraine’s case is that the threat is more serious and is unavoidable unless the US ups sticks and goes home. Whether they want it or not, NATO and its members close to Russia’s border nations have to deal with the risk of a war with Russia because this is now a permanent threat.
The cost-benefit analysis is clear. Not only would Ukraine’s defeat throw away everything that has been committed so far (not least, Ukrainian lives), including the $76bn in security assistance, but NATO and the US would have to return to a state similar to the Cold War.
The only difference is that the Iron Curtain runs further east. During the peak of the Cold War, 435,000 US troops and personnel were deployed forward in Europe. That had shrunk to 62,000 by 2018. Had Russia not launched its new all-out war of conquest in 2022, the drawdown might have continued. As it is, Russia chose the path of territorial conquest with the unlawful 2014 annexation of Crimea and the creation of puppet regimes in Eastern Ukraine.
The massive cost of upholding deterrence against the Soviet Union did not only affect the United States. During the 1980s and the Cold War, the British Army had four divisions stationed in Germany, and approximately 60,000 active duty soldiers in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR). The Cold War tally of 60,000 soldiers should be compared to today’s (2023) entire number of active duty soldiers in the British Army – 76,000. That is true for all European countries — Germany’s Zeitenwende tacitly acknowledges that its armed forces are in a very poor condition.
If Russia successfully forces Ukraine into submission and installs a puppet regime, or occupies the country, maintaining US deterrence on NATO Eastern Flank will have an annual cost that’s almost higher than the war in Iraq and Afghanistan combined — something beyond $100bn-$130bn. Add the increased costs for all other NATO nations, and you can throw another $100bn–$150bn.
The war in Afghanistan was termed the forever war, but it fades in comparison to the Cold War, which lasted four decades, a beginning marked by Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech when it was clear that the Soviets would not let Eastern Europe be free.
So, if the security assistance to Ukraine lasts five years at $80bn a year, that’s $400bn, but if we instead go the “let Russia win to save money” route and accept a 40-plus year Cold War at $100bn a year in 2023 dollars, it is massively more expensive. A Cold War would cost $4 trillion, 10 times as much, or even more, as the US-NATO contribution is more technologically dense with air mobility, air assets, long fires, and naval forces.
There is no way to get around the fact that a convincing NATO deterrence posture must match an aggressive Russian posture. If the US opts out of supporting NATO at a critical juncture, the Indo-Pacific deterrence against Chinese aggression against the Philippines, Taiwan, and Korea will fail, with severe risks and consequences.
Today’s Russia is a different beast from the Soviet Union; it is a smaller country and yet it is far more unpredictable. The Soviets were very different, even if we see Putin’s regime as a continuation of the Soviet Union.
The old Soviet system, even if it was totalitarian and authoritarian, and the opposition ended up in mental hospitals, has something that can be described as a power-sharing dynamic. Russia under Putin has almost zero power sharing; all powers reside with the “supreme leader.”
The post-Stalin, post-1953, Soviet Union had several sources of power. The American and British intelligence services carefully studied these different actors, as it would reveal the direction of Soviet politics and actions. The Soviet Union’s power centers were, for example, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, the Communist Party’s Central Committee (the Politburo), the leaders of the Supreme Soviet, army leaders, and a handful of other dignitaries.
It was no democracy, and there was a central leader with power and influence, but there were limits to this and effective restraints. The ousting of Nikita Khrushchev is one example of how this system operated.
Today’s Russia resembles the pre-1953 Stalinist years rather than the country we came to know in the 1970s and 1980s. Russia under Putin has become a one-leader state with no restraints or speed breaks. The regime’s opposition is either dead, in jail, or in exile. The domestic opposition is neutralized and pacified with a string of murders, other violence, and brutal punishments in bleak penal colonies.
It is essential to listen to dictators. Putin said he wanted Ukraine, one way or another, and set out to take it. His regime has also been clear about his intention to occupy once again the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are all members of NATO. (It may be possible to dismiss the words of fulminating Putin loyalists like former premier Dmitry Medvedev, who referred to them as “our provinces”, less so Putin’s December 2021 plan to de-fang NATO in former Soviet satellites and effectively return them to vassal status.)
The US could, of course, have decided at the start of the 21st century to save money on its commitments to NATO and told the Baltic states that they could not enter. But it made a treaty commitment to open the doors. The fact that the Baltics are in NATO is a heightened risk. The Baltics have been in the Russian crosshairs in the past and they are again now. If the war in Ukraine tips in Russian favor, deterring Russia from attacking these countries would require a very large-scale NATO commitment.
In reality, the war for the Baltics is being fought in Ukraine right now with the Ukrainians as a proxy. The Baltic state leaderships understand this very well and have consistently been among the top five NATO allies for aid to Ukraine as a proportion of national wealth. They know what will happen if Kyiv capitulates.
So, there are two outcomes of letting Ukraine down: either a Cold War that would cost 10-15 times more and discolor years of international peace and trade, or a Russian assault on the Baltics, which is means a nose-to-nose military confrontation with NATO. Either one would be a disaster of historic proportions with a significant and long-term impact on the US and the NATO countries.
There are no quick-fix solutions to the Eastern European Flank. But continued and increased support of Ukraine is the lowest risk, most economically sound, and will amount to the shortest-term commitment. Russian aggression is not going away. Confront it now, at a reasonable cost, or pay far more further down the road.
That’s our choice.
Jan Kallberg, Ph.D., LL.M., is a Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Dr. Kallberg is a former US Army Cyber Institute research scientist. He has taught at the United States Military Academy (West Point), New York University, and George Washington University. Follow him at cyberdefense.com and @Cyberdefensecom.
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.