The newly released White House budget for 2021 proposes cuts to foreign aid, however aid to Ukraine is slated to remain at its 2020 level—a notable standout given how central a role military aid to Ukraine played in President Trump's monthslong impeachment trial. The Washington Post reported last week that the Trump Administration’s 2021 budget will contain $365 million in aid to Ukraine, including $250 million for military support. Though the White House has been accused of putting American security at risk for withholding funding to Ukraine last year, a comprehensive assessment exposes that the U.S. has no security interests at risk in Ukraine and we should avoid taking sides in disputes between Russia and Ukraine.
One of the charges against Trump is that he withheld military support desperately needed by Ukraine to defend itself against Russian aggression. The implication being that the only thing holding Moscow back from capturing all of Ukraine was military support from the U.S. That is self-evidently untrue.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine began in Spring 2014 amidst considerable political upheaval in Kyiv, complete with pro and anti-government protests. The pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych was eventually pressured into resigning and fled the country.
Separatists—pro-Russian residents of eastern Ukraine—rose up in armed rebellion. Russia supported these rebels, including sending Russian armor in support. By the end of 2015, however, the lines had stabilized between the two sides, settling into the stalemate that has remained unchanged for years.
American military support is not going to tip the balance one way or the other in the highly complex cultural, military, and diplomatic relationship between Russia and Ukraine. The idea that Moscow might launch a full-scale war to take all of Ukraine—and is only held in check by U.S. military aid—is not supported by an examination of the actual military factors at play.
The population in eastern Ukraine has deep historic and cultural ties to Russia and many quarters there welcomed Russian troops and assistance with open arms. The further to the west one goes from the current front lines in the Ukrainian dispute, however, the more anti-Russian is the population.
Putin knows that he can keep his buffer between himself and the West by supporting friendly elements in eastern Ukraine. He realizes that to try and overtly capture all of Ukraine would pit his troops in an existential struggle against at least 30 million central and western Ukrainian citizens who hate Russians—not to mention risking the Baltic states, Poland, and other Central European countries that also oppose Russian influence from coming to Ukraine’s aid. It’s a losing proposition with no upside for Putin.
Of greater importance to the United States, however, is that regardless of how things play out between Moscow and Kyiv, there are no risks to American security at play. Washington’s ability to project power globally to defend our interests is unrivaled and ensures that Russia will not pick a fight it knows it would lose.
Ukrainian security is not to be confused for American security. Geography and demographics ensure that Russia will continue to have an interest in Ukraine. The most prudent path forward is for the U.S. to support Ukrainian President Zelensky’s efforts to settle with Moscow. There’s no doubt this would do more to advance peace than providing small amounts of arms, making Kyiv a permanent ward of the U.S., expecting financial and military support into perpetuity.
And with murmurs of expanding NATO to encompass Ukraine, we should confront the reality that such an expansion of a military bloc—founded with the purpose of countering Russia—will further aggravate the world’s only other nuclear superpower. In the Cold War, Finland remained neutral between the west and the east—a similar arrangement is within reach for Ukraine. A sovereign Ukraine, neither in the grip of Moscow nor Washington via NATO is desirable and a boon to stability in Ukraine. Diplomatic support is far more likely to bring about this outcome than any military support is.
We must also be honest and recognize that our ability to bolster the Ukrainian Armed Forces will always be matched by Moscow’s support to the separatists. They are next door neighbors. For Moscow, the idea of having a Western-friendly state directly on its borders—or worse, an eventual NATO member—ensures that it will spare no expense to protect its interests. Our interests in Ukraine are marginal at best. For Putin, this fight is existential.
Rather than continuing military support to Ukraine that is sure to be matched or topped by Russia, Washington should transition its support to diplomatic in nature to help foster reconciliation between the two countries. What we must absolutely avoid, however, is pointlessly antagonizing Russia and making Ukraine the latest country to rely on perpetual American money and military support.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.