J.D. Vance’s Ukraine math doesn’t add up

J.D. Vance’s Ukraine math doesn’t add up

In an April 12 New York Times op-ed, Sen. J.D. Vance advocates for halting U.S. arms shipments to Ukraine, arguing that Kyiv’s efforts to reclaim its national borders are doomed, that a globally acceptable new equilibrium could be established at the current lines of control, that the United States has no vested interest in this conflict, and that abandoning an ally would have no significant geopolitical repercussions. Each of these assumptions is fundamentally flawed.

First, Ukraine can win this war with the right support. Its military has demonstrated considerable battlefield success, killing or seriously wounding at least 50,000 Russian troops and destroying over 1,000 vehicles every six months. Its main handicap has been the lack of necessary weapons delivered in the appropriate quantities or at the optimal time.

To be sure, the $60.2 billion aid package that the Senate approved in February and which may soon get a vote in the House is only a fraction of what is needed to turn the conflict decisively in Ukraine’s favor. But the total cost is affordable. Estonia’s Defense Ministry, for example, calculated in December that if Ukraine’s allies spend 0.25 percent of their GDP on military assistance, there is a viable path to defeating Russia and winning the war by 2026. This expenditure pales beside the costs—in taxpayer dollars and human lives—should Ukraine fall and Russia advance further into Europe.

And yes, Russia’s population exceeds Ukraine’s. But the British Isles were outnumbered by the Axis powers in 1944, and the Thirteen Colonies by the United Kingdom in 1776. Would he have suggested that the United States abandon Great Britain, or that the French abandon our nascent democracy? History shows that a numerically inferior force often drives out a larger invader when properly armed and supported.

Senator Vance is right when he says it would be grotesque to prolong a bloody and gruesome war for economic gain. However, he confuses the roles of Russia and the United States. While Russia exploits the war economically by seizing Ukrainian resources, forcibly integrating Ukrainian workers into its population, and abducting children, Putin could end the hostilities at any time by simply withdrawing his troops.

Arming our ally has indeed generated billions for American industry, but this is secondary to defending democracy, preserving human rights, and upholding the international order. 

Still, it might be key to one of Sen. Vance’s top legislative priorities, not to mention our own military’s needs. In his essay, the Ohio Republican bemoans the decline of our defense industrial base. Post-Cold War consolidation has reduced its 51 major aerospace and defense prime contractors to five, and, as a 2022 Defense Department report noted, the U.S. military is now “increasingly reliant on a small number of contractors for critical defense capabilities.” Ninety percent of its missiles, for example, now come from just three suppliers.

To address the problem, Sen. Vance has introduced the William S. Knudsen Defense Mobilization Act, named after the architect of America’s World War II industrial boom. I commend him for this legislative effort. However, he overlooks a critical aspect of this historical parallel: Mr. Knudsen’s success was largely due to the urgent need to support our Cold War allies. The success of his eponymous act will require planned purchases to bolster Ukraine, Taiwan, and our other allies of today. It will also turn on a predictable, reliable multiyear plan to replenish our own stocks, not arbitrarily timed stopgap measures. Abandoning Ukraine now would fail to meet the strategic imperatives outlined in the Knudsen model and the pressing needs of the moment.

I do not mean to single out Sen. Vance in this response. None of his claims are unique: his essay is a highlight reel of standard neo-isolationist talking points. Underlying them all is the implicit premise that if only Washington would stop sending arms and Kyiv would make some hard choices about territorial compromise, then Ukraine would know peace, even if an uneasy one. There is simply no evidence to support this claim. Even if we were to ignore the drastic human rights consequences of Russia’s partial occupation of Ukraine, there is no possibility of a stable equilibrium of a partially free and partially sovereign Ukraine. To abandon Ukraine and freeze Russia’s advance is not an option we actually have. Moscow will not stop until it is stopped.  

There is no going back to the pre-invasion realities of January 2022. The consequences for U.S. national interests should Ukraine fall are profound—not least the erosion of the credibility of America’s commitments, the undermining of international treaties, and the encouragement it would give to other aggressive states, such as China and Iran. In the words of Gen. Christopher Cavoli, who leads U.S. European Command, “Deterring Russia from expanding its aggression into alliance territory is essential to preserve the rules-based international order…and protect U.S. strategic interests.” 

Fortunately, there remains a path to victory. No military has more experience, or success, fighting Russia than the Armed Forces of Ukraine, especially in the critical areas of unmanned systems, electronic warfare, and network-centric warfare. If we are fortunate, Ukraine’s victory will deter future aggression by Russia and its allies. If we are not, we will need to apply Ukraine’s lessons in the wars to come.

All anyone has to do to understand the resolve of the Ukrainians is come here and see it. Kyiv, which is just a day’s travel from Munich, hosts congressional delegations all the time. Senator Vance, you turned in your paper without doing the work. Come here and see Ukraine for yourself before you so quickly abandon it.  

Isaac C. Flanagan is a co-founder of Zero Line, a 501c3 non-profit that identifies the most pressing needs in Ukraine and works with international donors to fill them. He has lived in Kyiv, Ukraine, since May 2022. 

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