There is one thing on which seemingly every observer of the war in Ukraine can agree: this war isn’t ending anytime soon.
Russia’s hope—and much of the world’s expectation—of a swift victory was dashed by the stunning repulse outside Kyiv last winter. Despite combined casualties of perhaps 300,000 soldiers, both countries are still seeking victory. It doesn’t appear to be imminent for either side. Russia’s vaunted winter push was a bloody failure, while the recent Department of Defense intelligence leak included U.S. doubts about the prospects for Ukraine’s impending offensive. Vladimir Putin and Volodomyr Zelensky, politically hemmed in by their own ultra-nationalists, are both unable to make major concessions for peace right now, should either even want to.
But Ukrainian endurance for a long war relies almost entirely on outside aid. The majority of military aid—$47 billion of a total of $69 billion to date—comes from the United States. This situation is neither desirable nor sustainable for America, Europe, or Ukraine.
After fifteen months of fighting, Americans are increasingly divided about picking up the bill for this war. A Reuters/Ipsos poll has tracked a year-long decline in American public support for providing military aid to Ukraine, from 73 percent to 58 percent. With the stubborn persistence of inflation, the growing challenge of China, and a federal debt showdown in progress, American wariness about a major, long-term aid commitment to Ukraine is warranted.
President Joe Biden has provided calibrated but consistent support for Ukraine. His potential opponents in 2024 are unlikely to be as steadfast. Both of the leading Republican contenders, Donald Trump and Florida governor Ron DeSantis, view the war as a “territorial dispute” and seek speedy resolution.
For the United States, Ukraine is not a vital national interest. Even liberal internationalists like the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan have conceded that the conflict “does not pose a direct threat to the ‘national interest.’” The Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy rightly labels China, not Russia, as the United States’ most “consequential strategic competitor.” For America, defeating Putin’s invasion is the right thing to do, but it is not an essential thing to do.
Ukraine is far more important to Europe, even if Russia’s manifest military incompetence means that the immediate threat to the rest of the continent is minimal. Four NATO members border Ukraine; the largest, Poland, has already seen ordnance land on its territory. But European nations remain unwilling and unable to check Russia on their own.
Although they contribute an almost identical percentage to global GDP as the United States and boast an additional 100 million citizens, European countries have struggled, collectively and individually, to meet the material demands of the Ukrainian war effort. Decades-long defense neglect has resulted in paltry munitions stockpiles. Germany and Great Britain, with two of the biggest defense budgets on the continent, face dire ammunition shortages for their own forces: each has about enough ammunition for a week of high-intensity combat.
Though total European Union defense spending surpassed €200 billion this past year, EU policymakers quickly learned that funding is moot without production capacity. The European defense industrial base comprises several dozen large firms and 2,500 smaller firms—tens of thousands fewer than the United States. The continent’s defense industrial base is shallow, unable to produce sophisticated equipment at scale. Europe, as the Ukrainians quickly learned, operates up to five times as many different versions of key weapons systems, like tanks and artillery pieces, as the United States. Europe’s target for a revitalized defense industrial base is 2030, but this is an extremely optimistic goal.
The U.S. defense industrial base has also struggled to meet Ukrainian needs, but America’s armaments producers are in better shape than Europe’s. The U.S. Army’s multi-year acquisitional contract model has driven upsurge efforts, creating a steady, augmentable, production stream. The United States entered 2023 producing 14,000 155mm artillery shells a month— 236,000 shells short of Ukraine’s monthly request. Changes in procurement policy have enabled a major expansion: 155mm shell production will increase six-fold within five years.
In the meantime, the United States has drawn on its stockpiles. While this induces a limited degree of strategic risk, the majority of these weapons and munitions were set aside for a potential war against the USSR and then Russia. If they can cripple the Russian military in Ukrainian hands, they are doing what they were meant to do.
While Europe’s defense industries begin the slow and painful path to sufficiency, European money can fill the gap, via American arms and ammunition. For example, Ukrainian tankers will soon begin training on the American M1 Abrams main battle tank. The United States has over 3,000 M1s in storage, far more than it will ever conceivably need, especially as Russia resorts to pulling T-54s and T-55s out of storage to equip its battered brigades. When Ukraine inevitably needs more tanks after the attrition from this coming offensive, European NATO members could purchase a chunk of America’s mothballed M1s and pay for their delivery to Ukraine.
For more squeamish alliance members, paying for most of the non-military aid, currently at $89 billion, is a good option.
There is a good precedent for such an arrangement: during the First Gulf War, the United States was able to crowdsource over $50 billion from thirty-nine coalition members, though only sixteen countries had forces in the combat zone. Japan, constitutionally restricted from sending troops, paid $13 billion of the war’s cost.
In the long term, Europe needs a more robust defense industrial base and far larger munitions stockpiles. But for the immediate future, buying American can equip Ukrainian troops, attrit the Russian Armed Forces, and ensure Europe has the breathing room to rearm—as Russia surely will.
Training and logistical chokepoints have and will inevitably slow the provision of military aid to Ukraine. But greater European commitment will ensure that Western military aid to Ukraine will be politically, financially, and logistically sustainable. Germany’s recent $3 billion arms package was good news, but far more is needed. Europe is overdue to rearm and reassert itself on its own continent. Picking up most of the bill for Ukraine’s defense against Russia is a needed, and overdue, first step.
Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and a senior research fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.
Luke Cocchi is a research assistant at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship and a former Defense Security Cooperation Agency researcher.