In Ukraine (and Elsewhere) Russia and Friends Will Win by Default

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON — It is a sign of our troubled times that the much delayed vote by the US House of Representatives to approve a large package of military assistance to Ukraine (about $ 60 billion), along with additional packages directed at other US allies, has been celebrated as a triumph, yet another demonstration of American strong leadership when it comes to defending freedom and democracy around the world. Mike Johnson, Republican Speaker of the House, is now compared to Winston Churchill. Yet, this is the same Speaker who for months prevented a vote on the same package because of the pressure from members of his own Republican Party –in truth the openly pro-Putin wing of the GOP– adamantly opposed to military aid to Ukraine.

Good news?

Of course it is a good thing that common sense eventually prevailed. The package approved by the House, with critical support from most Democrats and about half of the Republican members, was swiftly passed by the Senate and was then signed by President Joe Biden. This is good. But what is not good, in fact really bad, is that half of the Republican Congressmen voted against aid to Ukraine.

On account of this vocal opposition, in a sharply divided Congress, for months Washington could not be counted on embracing the self-evident truth that the West, led by America, must support Ukraine, a sovereign democracy paying an enormous price in its heroic effort to resist Russian aggression. We all know that Ukraine cannot possibly manage to hold the line, let alone win, against Moscow, without massive support from the West (America and many European countries) in terms of funds, hardware and ammunition. And yet the Republican-led US House of Representatives for several months could not come together and do the only right thing: vote on a package that will allow Ukraine to resist.

No more aid to Ukraine

That said, it should be stressed that this is probably the last American package for Ukraine. Clearly this amount of military aid to Ukraine, while critically important will not be enough to win the war. Going forward, realistically this deeply divided US Congress will not approve additional military aid to Ukraine, unless there is a clear and convincing plan for a quick “victory”.

And this is impossible, unless we talk about massive amounts of new military aid totaling hundreds of billions of dollars, on top of what the Congress just passed. If the new US armaments now approved will merely allow Ukraine to hold the line in what looks like an endless war of attrition, impatient Americans will conclude that this expensive military aid package is just a waste of money. “If we can’t win the war, why bother?” The larger argument that this military assistance is an indispensable component within the larger effort to defend the principle of resisting wars of aggression does not resonate with most Republicans (and not just Republicans) in the US.

Putin is weaker but determined

And yet winning the defense spending battle against Russia is not mission impossible. Quite the contrary. The US has a GDP of about $ US 28 trillion, the European Union is at around $ US 19 trillion, while Russia’s GDP –remember, this is mighty and scary Russia– is at about US $ 1.8 trillion. And yet, notwithstanding this gigantic advantage in terms of overall economic prowess and resources, western countries are unable to drastically ramp up defense goods production in order to give Ukraine what it needs to win against Russia, while at the same time replenishing and upgrading their own arsenals and forces.

While the West hesitates, Putin forced Russia to adopt a war economy, with complete disregard for the monetary and human cost of his invasion of Ukraine in terms of funds used to revamp defense industries and Russian soldiers killed. As a result, Russia seems determined and capable to go on and on, no matter what, while the West is wavering, with many voices advocating a “negotiated solution” to the war, a polite way to rename what would be in fact Ukraine’s surrender. The truth is that autocratic and not so terribly strong Russia is willing to endure a costly and bloody war. The rich West, notwithstanding vastly superior resources, cannot even countenance the rather modest cost of supplying Ukraine, so that it can at least continue to resist this unprovoked aggression.

Therefore Russia, objectively a second rate power, will probably win this conflict, not because it is so much stronger than the West, but simply by default. Indeed, Putin’s Russia, initial strategic errors and catastrophic miscalculations notwithstanding, has staying power, while all signs indicate that the timid West does not.

In the case of Europe, it is true that the defense industries base has become lamentably small, given the systemic underinvestment in this critical sector that goes back to the early 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the consequent collapse of its empire. Still, there are at least some modern European defense industries that could be expanded. In America the defense goods sector shrunk as well over the last few decades; but it is nonetheless very significant. The key missing ingredient is neither money nor know how. It is political will.

Ignoring the threats

One would think that the West, faced with the growing threat represented by belligerent autocratic regimes –Russia, now allied with China and Iran, with North Korea as a willing partner– would have seen the light and reversed the trend of declining or stagnating defense budgets. But no, the worrisome signals are ignored, or explained away. Therefore, this absolutely necessary inflection in military spending has not taken place. Short of a direct attack against America, I doubt that it will occur any time soon. This way our leaders ignore what the ancient Romans wisely counseled: “Si vis pacem, para bellum”. “If you want peace, get ready for war”. This is what we call creating a deterrent force that will dissuade our adversaries. Simple common sense. Yet totally ignored.

Too little military spending touted as a lot

And a sign of these inauspicious times is that the very little currently being done in Europe for the common defense is described as an unmistakable sign of brave determination. Indeed, NATO now proudly proclaims that most members of the Alliance are or will soon be in compliance with their obligation to invest at least 2% of their GDP on defense. spending. Imagine that: 2% of GDP for national defense. What a titanic, super heroic effort! And yet this ridiculously low percentage of national wealth devoted to national security is the benchmark.

Sadly, all this is has the flavor of a farce, of tragic lack of seriousness. At best, in a global environment with increased security threats 2% of GDP spent on defense by NATO members should be a floor, the bare minimum. Whereas in this bizarre atmosphere of widespread denial, this truly modest spending goal is described as the ceiling, a lofty goal, the very maximum that wealthy democracies can devote to the effort of creating the strong and credible deterrent that could discourage future aggression against them. –all this while naked Russian aggression against Ukraine is underway, for the whole world to see.

Given the enormous economic superiority of the West and the existing technical and financial ability to increase the production of military hardware –even recognizing that especially in Europe a major ramping up of defense goods production will require sustained investments over a period of many years– it is hard to believe that until the recent approval of the Ukraine arms package by the US Congress the fate of Ukraine appeared to be sealed, in an atmosphere of indifference, simply because nobody could or would step in and give the Ukrainian armed forces what they desperately need in order to avoid defeat.

Rich but timid West

So, here is the picture. The rich West is at best reluctant to help Ukraine, a pro-western country resisting aggression, while there is no political consensus on the need to quickly replenish depleted NATO arsenals, even though the West –beyond Russia’s aggression against Ukraine– is faced with increased military threats. We all see and should be worried about Russia’s ambitions to reconstitute its lost empire via the conquest of Ukraine and potentially other Eastern European countries. We should act to prevent Iran and its proxies to keep threatening the Middle East and Israel. We should be concerned about China’s takeover of the entire South China Sea, its de facto takeover of supposedly autonomous Hong-Kong, its open threats to subdue Taiwan with force, and its ambitions in the South Pacific. And yet the West until now has opted to look the other way, willfully ignoring these mounting threats to world peace.

Older people want a comfortable retirement

Why is that? A simple if incomplete explanation is that the West is a tired civilization in slow but steady decline. A key element of this decline is widespread demographic collapse., first in Japan and Europe and now the US as well. This demographic collapse has yielded societies in which retirees and people close to retirement age are a huge and growing segment of the voting population.

Understandably, older people are not that worried about long term threats to national security that have not been fully and forcefully articulated by timid political leaders. Unless forced to, senior citizens do not want to think of what a world in which China will be the hegemon –if we do nothing to prevent this– will look like. They reckon that, worst case scenario, this bad stuff will happen after they are gone. Therefore, not their problem.

Understandably, senior citizens focus on their desire to enjoy a comfortable, worry free retirement. Their real concern is making sure that their welfare benefits, channeled through various and growing state funded entitlement programs, will continue to flow to them. It is therefore no surprise that in the US, as well as in most western democracies, the biggest percentage of public expenditures goes to pay for a variety of entitlement programs (pension benefits, and health care first and foremost) designed to support retirees.

Keeping all this in mind, it is obvious that senior citizens will vote for politicians who promise the uninterrupted, better yet increased, flow of scarce public funds into the pensions and medical care programs that benefit retirees today and tomorrow. Forget about costly new military spending justified by vaguely defined threats to our security that may never materialize. This being the case, would be political leaders warnings about external threats will not easily sway these voters. It will be very difficult to convince them that tanks and jet fighters are more important than increased Social Security benefits. And politicians rarely insist on pushing the right policies. They just want to be reelected.

The bad guys will win by default

Given all of the above, as rich as we are in the West, we seem to be unable to generate enough revenue to fund both “Guns and Butter”. Unable to make a convincing case for additional defense outlays, and lacking the revenue to pay the growing cost of both —“Guns and Butter”— the political pressure on elected leaders is to focus mostly on what the senior voters want: more “Butter” –entitlement programs. Both in Europe and in the US seniors are a big bloc of votes, and politicians who want to be reelected advocate policies that will please them.

Therefore, despite growing threats to western and world security, we have now a situation of chronic under investment in defense across the West, and consequently a condition of systemic military weakness that I am quite sure Moscow, Beijing and Tehran have noted. In the light of all this, when Chinese leaders arrogantly affirm that we –America and Europe– are on our way out, and therefore the future belongs to them, they may be right. Not because their system is better; but only because we shall not act to forcefully defend ours.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.

, , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *