Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 22 February 2024


The Dire Cost of Dithering on Ukraine

Feb. 22, 2024 5:07 pm ET

A woman walks past apartment blocks that were destroyed in a Russian missile strike in Selydove near Avdiivka, Ukraine, Feb. 19. Photo: thomas peter/Reuters

Kyiv, Ukraine

Three factors will determine the outcome of the war in Ukraine: manpower, money and materiel. Ukraine is providing the first, but the second and third are in short supply.

Last weekend, as Congress dithered over whether to provide aid, Russia captured Avdiivka, a city in Donetsk. In an interview four days before the city fell, Maj. Gen. Vadym Skibitsky, spokesman for the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said: “Just in the last 24 hours, 54 bombs, 500 kilograms each, have been thrown on Avdiivka.”

“Artillery is still the god of war,” says Oleksii Bezhevets, a Defense Ministry adviser. Gen. Skibitsky says that Russia’s “advantage in ammo is very significant at the moment,” with a ratio as high as 15 to 1 at some parts of the front. He estimates that Russia manufactured some two million rounds of ammunition last year, will increase its output this year, and has received 1.5 million rounds from North Korea since September.

The European Union promised to provide Ukraine one million rounds by March, but said in January that it would deliver only about half of them on time. “Already in the spring or early summer we will be very much at a disadvantage in this artillery-rounds situation,” Gen. Skibitsky says. Ukraine has made brilliant use of drones to offset its ammunition shortfall, but limitations on their range and payload make them an imperfect substitute for artillery.

The country’s air defense is also dwindling. Ukrainians have sometimes used machine guns to shoot down Iranian-made Shahed drones, and with U.S. help they have employed “Frankenstein” air defenses—old Soviet air-to-air missiles launched from the ground. But it would take five to 10 years for Ukraine to build its own air-defense systems.

The U.S. has provided Ukraine with $47.4 billion in military aid, compared with a collective $35.2 billion from the European Union, according to the Kiel Institute, a German think tank. But Republican complaints that Europe isn’t pulling its weight miss the mark. Add in nonmilitary aid, and the EU’s commitment is $158 billion, against only $113.1 billion from the U.S.

Almost all military aid is in kind—weapons, other equipment and training—and most cash grants and loans are restricted to civilian use. Thus all revenue the Ukrainian government brings in—from taxes, borrowing and sales of state-owned assets—goes to the military. In 2023 Ukraine spent more than $48 billion on defense and security, nearly as much as France’s 2021 military budget.

Ukraine’s needs this year will continue to grow. In December commanders suggested mobilizing as many as 500,000 more soldiers, which would cost more than $8.4 billion, says Roksolana Pidlasa, chairman of the parliamentary Budget Committee. The Defense Ministry also wants to increase spending on military hardware by nearly $12.5 billion, she says. Ukraine is trying to increase its capacity to manufacture weapons, especially those with the lowest “cost to kill,” says Strategic Industries Minister Alexandr Kamyshin.

The economy hasn’t recovered from the hit the invasion delivered: Gross domestic product in 2023 was nearly 20% smaller than in 2021. Exports declined after Russia gained control of some key ports and blockaded the Black Sea, although they’ve bounced back some since Ukraine drove Russia’s navy back.

Yaroslav Vinokurov, a reporter for Kyiv-based Economic Pravda, notes that mobilizing more working-age men will carry an opportunity cost: “If you take more people from the labor market, there’s less ability for businesses to work and grow and pay taxes.”

If Congress shrugs, the consequences could be dire. As Ukraine depletes its air defenses, it will increasingly be forced to choose between protecting troops at the front and shielding cities from Russian missile and drone attacks. Ukrainian determination to resist Russian subjugation is the only resource that remains in plentiful supply. That won’t be enough for victory.

Ms. Melchior is a member of the Journal’s editorial board.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska. Images: AFP/Getty Images/Zuma Press Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the February 23, 2024, print edition as 'The Dire Cost Of Dithering On Ukraine'.

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