The cost of war and war crimes

AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

War is expensive; war criminals like Russian President Vladimir Putin wreak enormous damage on a fragile world.

First and foremost, war takes lives. There are casualties on both sides of the war between Ukraine and Russia, with the most deeply disturbing and horrific loss of life the innocent civilians in Ukraine who were only trying to flee the violence, get food or shelter in place. Journalists have died in this war, as has an American citizen. 

As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said today, this could go on for a long time and “there will have to be accountability.”

Counting lives and treasure during war is a grim task. This is the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The number of refugees keeps growing, with each life and story another gruesome reminder of loss.

Millions of refugees will need continuous and enormous humanitarian support both inside the country for displaced people, and in Poland and the rest of Europe for those with no place to call home. Medical assistance is critical. Very little has been said about the spread of COVID-19 among refugees, in addition to other infections, wounds from escaping war and the mental trauma of running from conflict. 

Economically, war rings up a big bill for nations and individuals. America remains the largest donor nation in this war. Part of the money in the current U.S. Defense supplemental bill amounts to $4 billion, including assistance to countries around Ukraine. The United States has provided nearly $644 million in life-saving aid and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine beginning in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea. Each day we, along with 30 other nations helping the war effort, send more food, medicine and supplies.

Separate from humanitarian assistance is the military aid to Ukraine, which now totals almost $1 billion, including drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems. We have all grown familiar with the tools of war: Stinger missiles, Javelins, artillery, guns, ammunition, body armor, helmets, etc.

There are other indirect financial costs of war, including the high prices of oil and food for non-combatants, the impact of sanctions on Russia and the global economy. Vast fields of Ukrainian wheat that are not able to produce goods right now. We will all feel that price on our tables in the months ahead as a food crisis worsens. 

War has ramifications. There will be future costs in re-building Ukraine. Not only does war cost huge sums of money, but the aftermath of war is also expensive depending on the outcome. Nation-building is hard work.

And while a war in Europe is raging, America has been engaged in costly wars over the past decade. According to Brown University, the war in Afghanistan ended up costing America $2.3 trillion, not including the costs of the evacuation in August.

The same research from Brown University puts a price tag of $8 trillion on the 20 years of post-9/11 wars and a loss of 900,000 lives. 

What makes Americans proud, however, is that we are a generous country willing to bear the costs of war. Look at our record:

Remember what we did in Europe after World War II. The Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild the economies of Europe, including assistance to Greece and Turkey, cost over $13 billion, which in today’s dollars amounts to the equivalent of $103.4 billion, according to U.S. government estimates. By those standards, today’s sums of money for Ukraine seems paltry.

And let’s not forget the Berlin Airlift. In June 1948, the United States and Britain supplied Berlin with food and medicine, keeping life going for almost a year. The airlift cost over $224 million — a small price to help stop the Soviet expansion into Europe. 

Money matters. Supplies are critical. Getting food, drugs and military equipment into the right hands with the clock ticking is the greatest immediate threat, in addition to the health and well-being of refugees and the morale of Ukrainian forces that have responded with enormous courage and skill. 

As Putin hopefully begins to feel the pinch in his wallet, Americans are going to feel it in ours. But it is a small price to pay to ensure democracy survives and thrives. Living without a free and independent Ukraine would cost all of us much more than we can count. Freedom is expensive but worth the price.

Tara D. Sonenshine is professor of practice in public diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She served as U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs under President Obama.

Tags Antony Blinken Barack Obama Cost of War Forced migration Marshall Plan Russia Russia-Ukraine war Russian irredentism Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Vladimir Putin War in Afghanistan

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