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Denying Ukraine the Support It Needs Will Raise the Cost of U.S. Readiness

The inability of the U.S. Congress in recent months to pass the supplemental funding bill aimed at sustaining U.S. support for Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia’s brutal invasion is not the only example of the dysfunction that currently characterizes the U.S. legislative branch, but it is among the most expensive.

The impact of delayed funding for Ukraine will extend far beyond the war’s human toll.

The costs to Ukraine are enormous and human. They can be measured in the gains that the Russian troops are making along what had been established lines of contact that, if they had  moved in the last year, moved because of incremental Ukrainian advances.

There are also costs to the United States’ relationships with its NATO allies: an uncertain and unpredictable United States is creating parallel dysfunction as the allies struggle to coordinate strategy and tactics for supporting Ukraine in Europe. What had been a model of the United States serving as a “cooperator in chief,” including through the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, has become a less-coherent mishmash with French President Emmanuel Macron launching test balloons about putting troops on the ground, as the Czechs—valiantly, but with difficulty—collect European funds to buy more ammunition for Ukraine.

A less-appreciated cost is the impact that Russian success, incremental or total, has on long-term planning and U.S. and allied readiness requirements on the European continent.


As my colleague Dara Massicot wrote recently, the failure of the United States to sustain its support is already impacting Ukrainian front lines, and if the supplemental appropriation cannot be passed by the end of the month, the costs will escalate dramatically. Leaders in the West, earnest and sincere as they are in recitations of international law and principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, need to start communicating to their publics the costs of Ukraine losing (or waving the white flag, as Pope Francis suggested in recent days—his genuine moral concerns seemingly divorced from an understanding of the Russian regime and the function of international politics).

On the ground, as well as in reports and images in the media, witnesses won’t see Russians assaulting the abstractions of sovereignty and territorial integrity. They’ll see Russians assaulting Ukrainians. Yes, the costs are political and moral; but in the first order they are human. There will be more Russian war crimes. More use of sexual violence to terrorize Ukrainian citizens. More children forcibly taken from their families to Russia. More extrajudicial executions. More soldiers killed. Members of Congress will make the decision to approve or not approve the supplemental before the most gruesome new images of these horrors arrive on their TV screens and in their newspapers, and the images will be directly linked to their decision.

Congress’s indecision has also damaged U.S. coordination with its partners and allies in Europe and Asia to support Ukraine. What had emerged as a kind of division of labor—where the United States played an outsize role in military support and Europe played a relatively larger role in financial support to keep the rest of Ukraine functioning—has begun to crumble as the United States has wavered in its role.

The vacuum is felt not only in the rationing of ammo on Ukrainian front lines but also in European capitals. The United States cannot reasonably maintain its role as a kind of quarterback of the group effort while U.S. leaders are hamstrung by the entanglement of a foreign policy priority in domestic politics. It would be good if the Europeans had among them a leader who had the credibility to step into the coordination role, at least temporarily, but, for now, they do not. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is increasingly absent. Macron is typically bold but not coordinated. It will be a while before a UK prime minister can lead the other major European powers. The new Polish government is capable of being a good deputy, but it can’t lead on its own. And European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has released an ambitious EU defense industrial plan and proposed that the EU add a commissioner for defense, doesn’t have the authority—and, crucially, the funds—to match the symbolism of her leadership in the EU. (One wonders whether former German chancellor Angela Merkel might have been able to meet this moment.)

This unfortunate degradation of the ad hoc cooperation between the United States and Europe follows what had been a period of remarkable success in cooperation—not only on political and rhetorical alignment, but also on the difficult and sometimes highly technical challenges of coordinating sanctions mechanisms and identifying compatible weapons caches in countries’ storage facilities. Everyone was chipping in—some more than others—but the United States was playing an essential role facilitating the cooperation and coordination.

Even if Congress does eventually pass the supplemental—the next opportunity will likely come next week as it considers several spending bills—there will be costs to their delay. Of course, there have been and will continue to be costs in Ukraine. But there will also be costs to the U.S. ability to confront the challenges of an increasingly complex world with sufficient confidence in its military readiness. Russia’s war against Ukraine has precipitated a situation that was once unthinkable to those who remember the end of the Cold War and witnessed significant, sustained military deployments to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in this century.

The projection of U.S. military power is not just limited by political or budgetary decisions, but also by material shortages. The United States and many of its allies have run out of certain types of materiel that they can send to Ukraine. The delay in the supplemental (as well as the Joe Biden administration’s reticence to utilize certain authorities in the Defense Production Act) has complicated a needed expansion of U.S. production of key defense articles for supporting Ukraine and replenishing U.S. and allied stocks. By putting additional funding in question over many months, Congress is leaving the managers who plan factory staffing and production in U.S. defense companies wondering whether the orders will be there. Congressional inaction risks undermining a reinvigoration of the U.S. defense industrial base with implications beyond Ukraine support.

While the lack of a supplemental has been one constraint, another constraint has been that the United States has run out of excess weapons that it can transfer to Ukraine—or rather that it is willing to transfer to Ukraine. The advice of military planners on the minimum inventory of key armaments that the United States must maintain to preserve its military readiness, including for multiple conflicts in different theaters, is a policy constraint on executive branch decisions about the aid to offer Ukraine. As Ukraine’s supporters encourage Congress to act, they might also advocate for a fact-based reassessment of the minimum inventory requirements in U.S. and allied war-planning.

If these inventories can be replenished in the relative near term—say, the next one to two years—with currently planned production, it may be worth making an exception to existing thresholds to reinforce Ukraine in this critical moment. After all, if Ukraine falls to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, the levels of conventional military power that would be needed to defend U.S. and NATO interests in Europe would increase significantly. Future minimum inventory thresholds do not exist apart from the same context that weapons the United States has in storage might positively impact today.


Despite the forceful case President Joe Biden made during last week’s State of the Union address, at a strategic level and a moral one, too few Americans, including elected and senior officials and those in the commentariat, seem to understand the stakes both of the war so far (and the need for the United States to adapt to a confrontational relationship with a deeply revanchist and destructive Russian regime in the medium term) and of a possible Ukrainian defeat that would further damage the foundations of European security and demand U.S. attention and resources when the very real challenge of competition with China needs sustained focus.

The United States has reached a critical moment (again), and the decisions its leaders make in the coming weeks will help it or haunt it—not just in July when the United States hosts the NATO summit and Americans and others will see a NATO that is either limping or leading, but also in the years to come when they will see the impacts of today’s choices.


Dan Baer

Dan Baer is senior vice president for policy research and director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.