The Costs of Not Supporting Ukraine Far Outweigh the Costs of Supporting It | Opinion

While there was initially strong bipartisan support for massive American military assistance to Ukraine at the start of the war, a growing number of Americans—especially some (but by no means all) Republicans—now believe that Washington is giving too much to Kyiv. Those who think this way have cited several objections. These include that it costs too much, that money spent on Ukraine means less available for a possible confrontation with China over Taiwan, that the Europeans aren't paying their fair share, and that such massive American support for Ukraine risks the possibility of a direct Russian-American confrontation.

There is no doubt that American support for Ukraine has been highly expensive. But what also must be considered is what the cost to America and its position in the world would be of reducing or ending this support. The U.S. could incur far, far greater costs if Washington curtails—and especially if it ends—its admittedly expensive military assistance to Kyiv.

While many countries have provided military and other support for Ukraine, America has shouldered the main burden of doing so. If this aid came to an end, Ukrainians would undoubtedly fight on for as long as they could, but Russian forces would be in a far stronger position to hold onto Ukrainian territory they have already seized and to take even more. A decline in American support for Ukraine would reinforce Russian President Vladimir Putin's view that America and the West will tire of the conflict and withdraw from it, leaving Ukraine to his tender mercies.

Even continuing American support for Ukraine but at reduced levels risks Putin concluding that he can hold on to all Ukrainian territory Russian forces are now occupying and that the West will pressure Kyiv into accepting a settlement to the conflict in which Ukraine has to make concessions to Russia. Such a settlement, of course, would then give Putin the time he needs to rebuild his depleted forces and launch another attack.

The argument that American support for Ukraine somehow distracts Washington from preparing for a conflict involving China is an odd one. Massive American support for Ukraine, which has enabled it to stoutly resist Russian aggression, must give Beijing pause that the U.S. might give massive support to Taiwan to resist an attack from China. Reducing or ending American support for Ukraine, by contrast, could only raise hopes in Beijing that there would also be a limit to Washington's support for Taiwan.

While some European governments have given a great deal of support to Ukraine, it is true that Europe as a whole has been less supportive of Kyiv than Washington. Since the war in Ukraine impacts European security even more immediately than it does America's, some in Washington think that this is unfair to the U.S. Perhaps it is, but that is not the point. The reality is that less American support for Ukraine is more likely to result in less—not more—European support for Kyiv. And diminished support from both America and Europe will result in diminished Ukrainian capacity to resist Russian aggression.

Some have warned that a desperate Putin might launch a nuclear attack against Ukraine. A direct U.S.-Russia confrontation, especially involving nuclear weapons, is not something that Washington wants. But it is not something Moscow wants either. Whatever else he may be, Putin is not suicidal. While he has raised the specter of nuclear war, he has done so as a means of limiting Western support for Ukraine. The Biden administration's response of continuing to aid Ukraine and warning Russia about the consequences of using nuclear weapons has so far been successful, while reducing American aid to Ukraine seems guaranteed to induce Putin to continue raising the possibility of nuclear war as a means of reducing Western assistance even further. In other words: Less American assistance to Ukraine will not necessarily induce Putin to stop raising the specter of nuclear war.

Ukrainian soldiers take part in military drills
Ukrainian soldiers take part in military drills in the Donetsk region, on Jan. 21, 2023, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

While the fall of Kabul was bad for America's image, reducing military support to a government whose forces were unwilling and unable to defend it is quite different from reducing military support to a government whose forces have proven that they are willing and able to do so. As horrible as Taliban rule has been for Afghans, withdrawing U.S. forces from Kabul was a form of cutting U.S. losses from a venture that had long proven to be unsuccessful. But if the U.S. limits or ends support to a nation that is willing to defend itself, then every government allied to the U.S. will have to consider whether the U.S. would defend it from attack despite any treaty obligations (which ultimately cannot be enforced but rely on the belief that the U.S. will honor them to be effective), or whether they need to cut their own anticipated losses by trying to make a deal with their attackers by trying to appease them. And that, as we know from the British and French agreement with Adolf Hitler at Munich in 1938, may only succeed in postponing, not preventing, an attack.

The costs America has incurred through supporting Ukraine so strongly have been great. But the costs America would incur through reducing, much less ending, support for Ukraine would be far, far greater.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.