Ukraine aid and anti-imperialism
First published at September.
Ukraine aid, like the war itself, is a point of contention on the international left. Supporters see aid as essential for Ukraine’s defense against an imperialist invader. Skeptics regard it as a giveaway to the war industry at best, a fig leaf for the US empire at worst. The dilemma is that both sides have a point. Aid has enabled Ukraine to push back its occupier, but — funneled through the military-industrial complex of the United States — this success is bound up with both war profiteering and the maintenance of US hegemony. Supporters of aid, among whom I count myself, need to grapple with this ambiguity, which is indicative of the complex issues anti-imperialists will face as great power competition heats up in an increasingly multipolar world.
Aid and US hegemony
Ukraine receives humanitarian, financial, and military aid from around the world, but the US provides the most. The amount is substantial: $113 billion since the February invasion. To put that in perspective, $113 billion is more money than 40 US states receive annually from the federal government. It’s larger than Russia’s military budget. It’s also about three times as much as the total aid committed by the European Union, Ukraine’s second-largest donor. That aid is largely financial – and while the US does fund humanitarian assistance and other civilian projects, most of its aid is military.
US military aid nominally supports Ukraine’s self-defense, but a close examination shows a more ambiguous picture. In a November analysis of the first three aid packages (at which point military aid totaled $38.2 billion), Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that a plurality — about $17 billion — funds near-term needs like training and weapons transfers, which are obviously an urgent necessity for Ukraine’s fight against Russia. A smaller but still significant portion ($10.4 billion) funds the acquisition of new weapons by Ukraine – but as Cancian notes, this money is for purchasing weapons that have yet to be manufactured, and thus should be considered a long-term investment in its postwar military.
Ukraine deserves a national defense just like any sovereign country, but the US spending not-insignificant amounts on its future military development does at least raise the question of Ukraine’s utility for great power competition. Relatedly, the rest of the military aid analyzed by Cancian supports the US and NATO more than Ukraine itself. This spending includes $9.6 billion for troop deployments to eastern Europe and $1.2 billion for “DoD General Support,” which according to Cancian “covers a wide variety of activities, some only tangentially related to Ukraine, to prepare DOD for future conflicts.” The Pentagon never lets a good crisis go to waste.
So while aid supports battlefield needs, critics aren’t wrong to see war industry handouts — and US power politics — in the Ukraine packages. The weapons helping Ukraine defend its sovereignty are funded by the world hegemon and produced by US-based companies that use international conflict to turn public expenditure into private profit. Purchases of Javelins, HIMARS, Stingers, and other systems have sent their makers’ stocks climbing. As of this writing, Lockheed Martin, which manufactures HIMARS and co-produces Javelins, is up 33% over the past year. Northrop Grumman — which makes Bushmaster cannons — is up by the same percentage. Raytheon — which makes Stinger anti-air missiles and the just-approved Patriot batteries — only gained a modest 12%, but in general, business is good.
Aid in context
That said, Ukraine is not a main driver of US defense spending and isn’t exceptional when it comes to contractor largesse. The $113 billion spent on Ukraine (not all of which is for military purposes) pales in comparison to the $858 billion defense budget, around half of which can be expected to go to private corporations. Military spending was high and moving upwards well before the invasion, with the go-to justification being China – not Russian aggression. Ukraine may fit well into President Biden’s otherwise dubious “democracy vs. autocracy” framing, but in truth, this sort of policy rhetoric has very little impact on the budget. Legislative pork, in-district job numbers, industry lobbying, and unaccountable Pentagon power matter far more, giving military spending a lumbering structural momentum of its own. Even overt strategy is of secondary importance. The final figure for the Pentagon budget, for instance, ended up being tens of billions more than Biden even requested. The exact same thing happened last time. You can plausibly argue that aid is making the situation worse, but the responsibility for excessive military spending does not lie with Ukraine.
Importantly, it seems indisputable that military aid has made a difference on the battlefield. Weapons from the US and NATO have not only helped Ukraine survive, they’ve enabled major advances against Russia. As Joshua Yaffa reported for the New Yorker in October, these successes have then fed back into discussions in Washington about providing additional aid. The result has been a progressive expansion of the weapons systems transferred to Ukrainian control, with little apparent blowback.
The Biden administration initially approached military aid with maximum caution, given the nuclear ramifications of direct conflict with Russia. As trust improved and Ukraine advanced, though, the US became comfortable sharing weapons that were once regarded as too risky. Russia has protested these moves—it just called the transfer of Patriots “provocative” — but notably hasn’t taken escalatory steps in response. Even during the fall, when concern about Russian nuclear use was high, Putin took no substantive steps toward nuclear deployment. He still hasn’t. That doesn’t mean the risks should be ignored, but contrary to more alarmist claims, military aid does not seem to have dangerously increased the chances of a US-Russia nuclear war.
The future of US aid
Biden has faced little intra-party criticism for Ukraine spending, in part because he somehow managed to get domestic investment through Congress. The Inflation Reduction Act, in particular, was a surprise win for the Democrats that included major investments in green energy. On annual appropriations, though, there are still significant asymmetries in civilian vs. military investment. The just-passed $1.7 trillion omnibus bill, for example, was praised by Democrats for having the “highest level for non-defense funding ever,” but officially it still gave $85 billion more to the Pentagon. Unofficially, the gap was wider. Analyst Stephen Semler examined the details of the bill and found that as much as $300 billion of the “non-defense” funding was marked for either the military or law enforcement.
These asymmetries could get worse in the new Congress, where the GOP now holds a slim majority in the House of Representatives. That means at least two years of divided government in which the Biden administration may not be able to enact new domestic spending initiatives. Military investment will continue to increase, however, and Congress is likely to pass additional aid packages. So far grumbling about Ukraine aid has mostly come from the hard right, but if domestic priorities remain unaddressed while Congress continues to lavish funds on the war industry, you could begin to see opposition from Biden’s own party. An economic downturn would exacerbate the situation. If the Federal Reserve stokes a recession by raising interest rates, aid to Ukraine could become collateral damage in its war to lower the wages of American workers.
Russia’s war deserves more than a shrug of resignation from the left and backing aid is one of the few ways to provide material support for Ukraine’s anti-imperialist struggle. That said, it would be unwise to dismiss the very real messiness of situational (if temporary) alignment with one of the great power blocs. To clarify things, I would suggest using self-determination, a concept which has understandably seen a revival since the invasion, as a guiding principle for the left’s approach to aid.
Appealing to the US may have been Ukraine’s only option for defending its sovereignty against Russia, but that should not mean that it becomes yet another client state of the world hegemon. Supporting Ukraine’s defense against one empire should mean opposing its exploitation by all of them. Placing self-determination at the center of our analysis can help us determine which aid is necessary and which is opportunistic, a distinction that will be even more important when the war ends and reconstruction begins.