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A blank check won’t happen

The United States should see a clear strategy and more support from Europe before funding Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Dec. 19. Associated Press/Photo by Efrem Lukatsky

A blank check won’t happen
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After fading into the background following two months of war in the Middle East, Ukraine is back in the news. Congress has debated continued military funding for Ukraine over the past couple weeks, with Republicans staunchly insisting that any such aid must be tied to a bill strengthening border security on the chaotic U.S.-Mexico border. The prospect of a halt in American military supplies has sent Ukraine’s leadership scrambling to shore up public support. Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska warned on British television that her country was in “mortal danger,” while President Zelensky met with leading officials in Washington to plead his case—all to no avail.

No fair-minded person can listen to such pleas without sympathy and concern; Ukraine’s courage and suffering have rightly captured the attention of the world. And yet politics is the art of the possible, the art of setting priorities among many needs and limited means. From that standpoint, it is hard to argue with the wisdom of Republican Speaker Mike Johnson’s stance. First, America’s primary responsibility is for her own national security, and that means securing the nation’s borders. Second, we cannot continue sending money and supplies to Ukraine without a “clear articulation” of the strategy. Let’s be honest about the endgame.

The ambiguity on this second point is evident from Ukraine’s public statements in recent days. On the one hand, the first lady dramatically declared that Ukraine could not afford to stop fighting “because if we do, we die. And if the world gets tired, they will simply let us die.” This implies that Ukraine is waging a desperate defensive effort to prevent Russia from overrunning the heart of the country and butchering civilians. Three days later, however, her husband told an American reporter that it was “insane” to contemplate making peace without reconquering occupied territories. This implies that American military aid is intended for an offensive effort, to retake the Donbas and Crimea. Which is it?

The answer matters quite a lot, because offensive war is far more difficult and costly than defensive efforts, as Ukraine has experienced over the past year. A counteroffensive launched to great fanfare this spring failed to provide almost any gains despite the sacrifice of tens of thousands of lives. It turns out that trench warfare, as any student of World War I should know, strongly favors the defender. Back then, the deadlock on the Western Front was only finally broken by the arrival of millions of American foot soldiers. Is anyone in Congress seriously considering such a solution? If not, then cession of conquered territories to Russia may eventually be the price of peace.

Ukraine is part of Europe, and although we should care about her too, ultimately her conflict is chiefly a matter of European security.

Is that unjust? Of course it is. Do most wars end in a “just” solution? Of course not. History shows that when powerful aggressors attack weaker neighbors, the latter usually only gain peace by making concessions—again, unless they have powerful allies willing to actually go to war on their behalf. Critics will contend that “letting Putin win” will embolden him for another assault in the future. Perhaps so. That is why any American-brokered peace settlement should include ironclad American guarantees of Ukrainian security going forward.

But not just American guarantees. Ukraine is part of Europe, and although we should care about her too, ultimately her conflict is chiefly a matter of European security. Why then has nearly half of all military aid to date come from the United States, dwarfing the contributions of rich European neighbors like Germany? The fact is that, more than three decades after the end of the Cold War, Europe prefers to continue to outsource its security to America. This is not sustainable, and it’s probably time for the United States to start showing Europe some tough love, by requiring them to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting Ukraine.

Such an approach is not “isolationism” or a sign of weakness, as hawks on both left and right will complain. Rather, it is a recognition that nations, like individuals, have responsibilities for one another, but also have limits. It is a worthy thing for me to volunteer my time in my own Neighborhood Watch, but not to sign up for one on the other side of town. At the end of World War I, Theodore Roosevelt penned a series of columns in the Kansas City Star urging the American people neither to withdraw from their newfound global role nor to assume primary responsibility for security outside their own hemisphere. Americans simply would not go to war, observed Roosevelt, “every time a Jugoslav wishes to slap a Czechoslav in the face.”

So it is today. Americans may feel sorry for Ukraine, but they are not about to go to war on her behalf, and they are increasingly unwilling to fund a war that may not be winnable. Any further aid must be predicated on a clear and feasible military strategy, and a commitment by European allies to take the lead in supporting it.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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