The Real Cost of US Support to Ukraine

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

View all articles by Walter Pincus

OPINION — “U.S. aid to Ukraine is still probably the most cost-effective investment the U.S. and its strategic partners have recently made in national security, and an investment whose benefits will still outweigh its costs.”

Those are the words of Anthony H. (Tony) Cordesman, Emeritus Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) from an article published last Tuesday, on the CSIS website, United States Aid to Ukraine: An Investment Whose Benefits Greatly Exceed its Cost.

I came across the Cordesman piece as I was putting together this column, which was to be my effort to explain how broad and deep U.S. spending in Ukraine has been, based on examining the details of the latest $38 billion fiscal 2023 package sent to Congress on November 15.

Referring to the threat of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that people are “not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” Cordesman effectively responded: “Focusing on the price tag of aid, instead of the value of what it buys, ignores the fact that the war in Ukraine has become the equivalent of a proxy war with Russia, and a war that can be fought without any U.S. military casualties, that unites most of the world’s democracies behind a common cause, that deeply punishes Russia for its act of aggression and strengthens every aspect of deterrence.”

Keep that in mind as I describe what the latest Ukraine funds sought by President Biden are intended to accomplish should Congress vote its approval in the coming weeks.

A majority of the new package, $21.7 billion, is for the Pentagon for military equipment for Ukraine ($7 billion), replenishment of Department of Defense stocks already given Ukraine ($7 billion) and for continued military, intelligence and other defense support ($6 billion), according to the supplemental request.

Within those amounts are, for example, $3 billion to support Army temporary duty costs, intelligence analysis, flying hours, maintenance, and weapon systems sustainment. Another $700 million for Army purchase of anti-vehicle munitions, $215 million to the Air Force to increase production of AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile systems and $680 million to the Air Force would be for cyber security and other weapon systems upgrades.

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There is $11 million for the Defense Department to support surgical and inpatient medical care for Ukrainian Service Members at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany.

Another $126 million would go to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the U.S. nuclear weapons organization, for equipment to assist Ukrainians in the event of a potential nuclear or radiological incident. An earlier $35 million had been set aside for NNSA after shelling was directed at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine, which Russian forces have occupied since March.

The overall package also contains $14.5 billion for the State Department and USAID with almost $10 billion of that for direct budget support for the Ukraine government. The latter amount would support the Kyiv government’s domestic currency and financial system, and the delivery of government services.  The European Union (EU), G7 members, international financial institutions, and other bilateral and multilateral donors are also contributing funds to help ease destabilizing inflationary pressures.

Another $1.5 billion is to help stabilize Ukraine’s economy by focusing on activities that will generate revenue and create conditions for eventual reconstruction. Emergency relief would target areas liberated from Russia’s control and support local governments, civil society organizations and aid in the restoration of health, education, and community services.

There also is $1.1 billion to secure and repair Ukraine’s energy infrastructure which has been under ongoing Russian attacks, leaving many households and businesses without power.

Assistance would support the general cost of operations, repair and maintenance for Ukraine’s power, gas, heating, and petroleum sectors, as well as the imports of electricity, gas, and liquid fuels. District heating and water network need repair during the winter, with special attention
paid to critical facilities in recently liberated areas.

There is $900 million to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for its Refugee and Entrant Assistance account. It supplies resettlement assistance to Ukrainians arriving in the United States that includes time-limited cash and medical assistance, case management, English language education, job training, and other support services.

Another $250 million for the State Department to provide humanitarian assistance to overseas displaced Ukrainians and their host communities affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement unit would get $300 million to support programs of the National Police of Ukraine and the State Border Guard Service. Those two agencies protect civilians, rescue victims of Russia’s repeated attacks and reestablish civilian security in areas reclaimed by Ukraine’s armed forces.

There is also $500 million for the Foreign Military Financing Program, which is run by the State Department to support grants, loans, or loan guarantees for weapons purchases by Ukraine and other U.S. partners, including non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, under threats arising from the Russian invasion.

The remaining $1.5 billion would help cushion global food shortages caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine ($300 million) and fund cyber security in the Western Balkans ($50 million).

Some of these funds would also go to nearby Moldova to help its increased imports of electricity from neighboring countries, or to enable the purchase of other fuels. Since February 24, the United States has committed $130 million to support Moldova’s response to the Russian-created crisis.

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Another $20 million is to carry out oversight and accountability for disbursement of these congressionally appropriated funds — monitoring, verifying and reporting their use.

In short, it’s a wide-ranging use of U.S. funds

But as Cordesman points out, “While U.S. aid to Ukraine has scarcely been cheap, U.S. spending has been at token levels compared to the economic burden that the cost of the Ukraine war and economic sanctions have placed on Russia…It allows the U.S. to exert immense strategic leverage on Russia at a minimal cost to the U.S. and in ways that U.S. spending on military forces – vital as it is to U.S. security — cannot match.”

In addition, Cordesman stresses that the U.S. aid to Ukraine “helps to rebuild and strengthen the role America plays as the de facto leader of the West and other democratic states.”

Following the U.S. example, the European Council proposed at its meeting last month, an unprecedented EU support package for Ukraine of up to $18.7 billion for 2023, in the form of highly concessional loans, disbursed in regular, monthly installments during the year.

In sum, the Biden administration’s response to Ukraine’s military and economic needs has had a positive “impact on global perception of the United States, its practical strength in competing with Russia and China, and the trust America’s allies and strategic partners put in the U.S.,” according to Cordesman.

I could not have said it better.

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