Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 1 May 2024

 

Putin Isn’t Scared of Ukraine’s $61 Billion Boost

The US aid will help Kyiv make it through 2024 but the Russian leader still thinks he can outwait the West. 

Still eyeing victory.
Still eyeing victory. Photographer: Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images
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Sometimes, foreign policy is simply about averting catastrophe. By that metric, Washington did well last week. The approval of $61 billion in aid for Ukraine ensures that 2024 will not be the year the US abandons Kyiv to defeat at the hands of Moscow, an outcome that would have sent geopolitical shockwaves around the world. Yet it hasn’t changed the fact that the coming months will be quite ugly — and it won’t be enough to win this war or to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that he can’t simply outwait the West.

Ukraine aid passed with sizable bipartisan majorities — nearly 80 votes in the Senate, over 300 in the House — showing that support for American internationalism remains strong so long as Donald Trump isn’t terrifying Republicans into neo-isolationism. And it came just as Ukraine’s war effort was reaching a decisive, desperate moment.

The scenario that increasingly worried US officials was that a Ukraine battered by war, and then forsaken by its strongest supporter, would suffer accumulating military reverses as its outnumbered, outgunned troops were overwhelmed by Russia’s upcoming offensive. As Ukrainian troops and civilians concluded that victory was impossible, cascading collapses along the front lines might compel Kyiv to sign an unfavorable peace.

If nothing else, US aid significantly reduces the possibility that Ukrainian forces will crumple militarily — because they simply lack ammunition — or psychologically. The provision of more sophisticated weapons, namely the long-range missiles Washington had previously withheld, will also give Kyiv better options for hitting targets deep within the Russian rear lines.

The view in Washington is that if Ukraine can persist through 2024, then 2025 might not be so awful. Russia is suffering ghastly casualties to make modest territorial gains; it is dipping deep into stockpiles of old weapons and equipment to replace its losses. Military spending is sky-high — perhaps 10% of gross domestic product, according to experts I consulted. Russian stamina is impressive but not infinite. Perhaps the strain, economic and otherwise, will start to tell as the war wears on.

Kyiv will need that hope, because the coming months will be quite grim. The US is rushing in artillery ammunition, but Ukraine will nonetheless be outgunned two-to-one or even three-to-one. The air defenses Ukraine needs to protect its cities and its forces are in short supply.

Ukraine also faces a manpower crunch, because it has dithered in raising fresh troops — which means it will be months before it has mobilized and trained the personnel it needs. Add in the fact that Ukraine waited too long to dig in along the front lines, and the country will face a stern test from Russia’s coming assault.

Ukraine could lose more territory before the end of this year, even if its defenses don’t break altogether. The more ground Ukraine loses, the harder it becomes to end the war on acceptable terms.

American aid will undoubtedly bolster Ukraine’s defenses. It probably won’t be enough to help this Ukrainian military — which has shown little talent for complex operations against well-prepared positions — evict the enemy from its land. And even if Ukraine does stymie Russian attacks and inflict awful casualties on Moscow’s forces, there’s no guarantee Putin will call it quits.

The politics of aid have gotten more difficult in Washington, so don’t expect many more big tranches of assistance for Kyiv. If Trump is elected in November, US policy could change dramatically. The US may just have convinced Putin that he won’t win the war by default this year. It probably hasn’t convinced him that he can’t outlast the West, and Ukraine, over time.

Even if Putin faces growing problems in 2025 and after, he still runs a larger, stronger country confronting a smaller, weaker one. And whatever pain Western sanctions have inflicted has been offset by the remarkable quantities of aid, economic and military, that his autocratic brethren in North Korea, Iran and China have been willing to provide.

Looking beyond this year, then, the prospects for a decent outcome in Ukraine hinge on difficult questions. Can Kyiv build a military that is capable of busting through layered, well-defended Russian lines? Can Europe ramp up ammunition production to sustain the Ukrainian military if and when America pulls back? Will the US and its allies agree to seize frozen Russian assets and deliver them to Ukraine? Are they willing to do things — like driving Putin’s oil off the global market or having a sanctions showdown with Chinese banks involved in trade with Russia — that are necessary to really tighten the economic squeeze?

Perhaps most vexing: If Putin can’t conquer Ukraine, but won’t stop fighting, how far will the US and NATO go to force Russia to bring the war to an end?

That $61 billion in US aid has bought time to address these issues. It hasn’t provided any easy answers. As the potential for near-term disaster in Ukraine recedes, the longer-term dilemmas come right back into view.

More From Hal Brands at Bloomberg Opinion:

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
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