Military aid is not a substitute for coherent foreign policy

President Biden signs the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022
Associated Press/Manuel Balce Ceneta
President Biden signs the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 in the Oval Office of the White House on May 9, 2022.

The war in Ukraine has settled into a grinding mill of artillery and airstrikes, with concentrations of intense bombardment calcifying the impasse as Russian forces and Ukrainian defenders continue to struggle. The current conflict almost calls to mind the stalemated trenches of the First World War, when the French and German antagonists lobbed millions of tons of artillery and hundreds of thousands of men against one another’s fortifications in an attempt to “bleed white” the adversary. 

The West’s answer to this dilemma has been more and more military aid, the likes of which are unprecedented in recent memory. These efforts speak to a lack of clear foreign policy and an end-state vision for what the West hopes to achieve in this conflict. In particular, the policy easy button has been enabling Ukrainians to bleed the Russian colossus white so as not to risk American or NATO boots on the ground. 

But so long as the West refuses to lead the way out of this ordeal — “not making concessions or rewarding Moscow for its aggression but creating mutually acceptable conditions for the end of hostilities” — there is no other recourse but for Putin and his generals/butchers to keep grinding in Ukraine’s quagmires of artillery and airstrikes. And in turn, the U.S. government continues to pour more and more scarce resources into this meat grinder while calling it the defense of “democracy versus dictatorship” per Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

This week, the House approved a $40 billion package which is expected to sail through the Senate in short order. The bill includes $6 billion in direct support to Ukraine’s defense and operational support, nearly $9 billion for procuring U.S.-made weapons systems and $11 billion to the president’s ‘discretionary fund’ — more than double the requested amount from the executive. While the total value of financial and military aid is difficult to calculate thanks to the continuous additions since February, $28 billion has already been committed to Ukraine, most of which has come from the United States, while the European Union has also contributed hundreds of millions to the cause.

In the preceding weeks, heavy artillery has surged into Ukraine which has been touted as reshaping the war with Russia (a curious effort, since Ukrainians have done a bang-up job at securing their own artillery since the war began.) The ongoing controversy of U.S. intelligence helping Ukrainian forces target senior Russian leadership and maritime forces has served to blur the lines of direct involvement and done little to deescalate the rhetoric and tensions between Moscow and the West. A White House press release outlines the surface-to-air missiles, Javelin anti-tank launchers, tactical unmanned systems, 41 million rounds of ammunition, body armor, maneuver equipment/vehicles and secure telecommunications equipment sent to Ukraine  — enough to outfit a unit that is the Western equivalent of a full U.S. Army Maneuver Brigade.

The bill demonstrates two main points — first, the U.S. does not have a coherent foreign policy to deter Russian aggression in Europe through grand strategy (which must include diplomatic and political levers of influence), preferring instead to politicize Ukrainians doing the fighting on behalf of the West in advance of the 2022 midterm elections. 

Second, in the absence of a clear political strategy to advance the stability of a key region, the West has supplemented that lack of strategy with abstract military force. Hard power is the one thing that the U.S. has always done well, at least going as far back as World War II. Yet despite the changing international order and the globalized environment we live in today, the United States is handcuffed to the idea that we can force the capitulation of an opponent without understanding the environment and their motivations and seeing the big picture.

The continued onslaught of military aid to Ukraine isn’t much different from America’s 21 years of extensions to the war in Afghanistan — emphasis on the military use of force and lethal capabilities, a lack of coherent, political objectives and end states for the conflict, and most importantly, a way out of the conflict that isn’t certain to foment deeper antagonism from the ‘loser’. 

Military hard power is not a suitable substitute for an effective foreign policy. Rather, military power is supposed to be a tool that is a component of a grand strategy, and is most effective when it isn’t used. “Compellence” is the term offered by American economist and theorist Thomas Schelling, on the topic of coercive military power in grand strategy. 

Today’s conflict in Ukraine, and the U.S. addiction to spending more taxpayer funds on military aid in a time of tremendous economic upheaval, demonstrate this lack of grand strategy more than ever.

Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack controller. He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point) and RealClearDefense. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.

Tags Biden Ukraine aid Politics of the United States Putin Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russo-Ukrainian War Vladimir Putin

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