The Feeble Case Against Ukrainian Aid

As the Ukrainian counteroffensive of 2023 grinds on, aid to Ukraine continues to be a point of contention in American politics, particularly on the right. This clash was highlighted in the recent interview of former vice president Mike Pence by Tucker Carlson at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, during which Carlson amplified a number of points made against aid to Ukraine. However, the arguments are deeply flawed. Three critical questions are frequently repeated by opponents of Ukrainian aid.

Why should we be spending money aiding Ukraine when our cities are disasters? 

This question presupposes that the United States, the wealthiest and most powerful republic in the history of the world, is incapable of walking and chewing bubblegum at the same time. It is not actually the case that we can only address our urban problems if we surrender Ukraine to the aggression and rapine of its imperial neighbor. 

Moreover, it is surprising and dispiriting that some conservatives, who should know better, have implicitly embraced the theory that the chief problem facing our cities is insufficient federal spending. If only we could shovel the fiscal equivalent of four or five HIMARS into the Cook County bureaucracy, Chicago would be livable again! In reality, if Chicago is a mess, it is not because the federal government spends too little money there. It is because voters in Chicago have chosen to entrust power in their city to people who govern on the basis of bad ideas. Chicago voters had an opportunity this year to put their city on a different path, and they chose not to do so. This failing can hardly be laid at the feet of Ukraine. To the extent that federal spending has anything to do with Chicago’s plight, it is an excess of spending, not a shortage, that has contributed to the disaster, by subsidizing and rewarding both a deficient educational system and endemic family breakdown.   

America has a federal system in which the federal government is responsible for foreign affairs and for safeguarding the United States against its enemies. Local governments are primarily responsible for the governance of cities, though states are also responsible because local governments are constitutionally creatures of the states. Pence’s much-criticized answer to Carlson that urban affairs are not his main concern, inartful though it was, was essentially the right answer. We have spent six decades with the president of the United States intermittently acting as if he actually was the mayor of Chicago, and it has not turned out well. One would expect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez not to know the difference, but should we not expect better from A-list conservative commentators?

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is now seen by most Ukrainians, not unreasonably, as an institution harboring a fifth column actively working to aid Russia.

A variant of this argument substitutes “when our border is a disaster” for “when our cities are disasters.” This variant at least has the advantage that control of our border is legitimately a federal function. But while border control and immigration enforcement could benefit from increased funding, the amounts involved are (and would be, even if plausibly augmented) only a small portion of overall federal spending. In 2021, ICE and CBP spending totaled a combined $26 billion, a small fraction of the $4.8 trillion of federal spending but also nearly triple what was spent in 2003. As in our cities, the problem on the border is not primarily money but policy and execution. It is the Biden Administration’s incompetence and ideological commitments which have created a crisis on the border. Americans are right to think that we should care more about our own border than Ukraine’s. But the solution is to strengthen the American border, not to degrade the sovereignty of Ukraine to below Rio Grande levels.

Why should the U.S. help Ukraine when it is oppressing Christianity? 

The kernel of truth lodged in this bundle of nonsense is that the Ukrainian government has cracked down on portions of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (or UOC-MP), the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The government has detained the UOC-MP’s second-ranking cleric, investigated or arrested a small fraction of its priests, and transferred some of its properties to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. (In contrast, the Soviets, who did in fact oppress Christianity, blew up Orthodox churches or turned them into museums of atheism.) One cannot assess those actions without first understanding the character of the Russian Orthodox Church. While it undoubtedly has many faithful believers as members and clergy, it is no exaggeration to say that the Russian Orthodox hierarchy serves as an arm of the Russian government. Moreover, this is nothing new. In centuries past, the leadership of the church, the Holy Synod, was named (and sometimes removed) by the tsar; under the Soviet regime, the Patriarchate was under the full control of the Soviet security services. Both the current Patriarch, Kirill, and his predecessor, Alexei, were KGB agents before the fall of the Soviet Union. Kirill has also worked for the FSB (the successor agency of the KGB) and has been joined at the hip to Vladimir Putin. He blessed the Russian invasion of February 2022, telling Russians that their sins would be forgiven if they died fighting in Ukraine. 

The leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has condemned the full-scale Russian invasion, and the UOC-MP has formally broken ties with the Russian church. However, searches of Orthodox churches of the Moscow Patriarchate have uncovered Russian propaganda, rubles, flags, passports, and other signs that they have been used as organizing points for pro-Russian activity. Even before the onset of the full-scale invasion, some UOC-MP priests encouraged Ukrainian servicemen to lay down their arms and hid pro-Russian militants and weapons in their churches. Influenced by Kirill, the church has incubated and propagated the ideology of “Russian World.” Over 50 priests are under investigation for collaborating with Russian forces. Among them is Father Mykola Yevtushenko, who allegedly urged his parishioners in Bucha to welcome the Russian occupation, then pointed out to the Russian authorities those he considered most likely to oppose them. Later, dozens or hundreds of Ukrainian civilians were summarily executed by the Russians in Bucha. For his part, Metropolitan Pavlo, now detained, was recorded praising the Russian army’s takeover of Kherson. 

As a result, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is now seen by most Ukrainians, not unreasonably, as an institution harboring a fifth column actively working to aid Russia. In 2019, Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual leader of international Orthodoxy, recognized the autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox Church of Ukraine as the legitimate voice of Orthodoxy in Ukraine. Since then, hundreds of congregations have changed allegiance from the UOC-MP to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Once the majority religion of Ukrainians, recent polls show the Moscow Patriarchate now has the loyalty of 4 percent. When Orthodox priests of the Moscow Patriarchate have been investigated or arrested, it has not been for being Christian, or even for belonging to the UOC-MP; they have been suspected, on a case-by-case basis, of being traitors to their country in wartime, even by the stringent definition stipulated in the U.S. Constitution: levying war against their country or adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.

Why should we force Kyiv to declare in advance what they are willing to settle for? No one fights a war that way. 

Outside of that circumstance, one of the most notable things about post-Soviet Ukraine has been the vibrancy and pluralism of its religious life. Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic (Uniate) have all thrived and coexisted. Protestantism has grown in prominence, both in Baptist churches long established and in Pentecostal and non-denominational churches recently planted. There is a strong Jewish community, which includes as a member the country’s president, while Muslim Tatars from Crimea are also strong supporters of Ukraine. 

On the other side, wherever Russian occupation forces have gone, religious oppression has followed. Hundreds of churches have been destroyed or closed, and clergy arrested or beaten. In April 2023, the Institute for the Study of War concluded that “Russia is exporting its state policies of systematic religious persecution to Russian-occupied Ukraine.” Only Russian Orthodoxy is permitted to operate freely, and even Russian Orthodox priests who dissent from Moscow’s line, whether in occupied Ukraine or in Russia itself, have been repressed. In unoccupied Ukraine, many Christian churches of all sorts have been damaged or destroyed. Recently, the oldest Orthodox cathedral in Odesa, a church of the Moscow Patriarchate, was severely damaged by a Russian strike. The Vicar of the Odesa Diocese wrote an angry open letter to Kirill, saying “The rocket of the Russian Federation ‘blessed’ by you flew directly into the altar of the church.” In the war between Russia and Ukraine, there is only one regime that is an enemy of religious freedom, and it is not Ukraine. 

Why should we keep funneling American money into this endless war? 

Perhaps the 24-hour news cycle has distorted our perception of time, but by historical standards this is hardly an “endless” war. August 22 will mark 18 months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine initiated all-out war. In comparison, almost all of America’s roughly dozen major conflicts lasted longer than that. The Revolution, the Iraq War, and the Vietnam War all lasted more than eight years, while the French and Indian War in colonial times was otherwise known as the Seven Years War for a reason. The Civil War and the wars against the Barbary Coast pirates took four years each, U.S. participation in World War II nearly as long. The U.S. fought in Korea for three years, the War of 1812 nearly three years, the Mexican War 22 months, and World War I 19 months. (Of course, the world wars had already been going on for several years before the U.S. entered them.) The U.S. fought the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years. Combat in the first Gulf War against Iraq only took two months in 1991, but it is an open question whether it was really a separate war or should be seen as part of the war that resumed in earnest in 2003. Of major American conflicts, only the Spanish-American War, which lasted eight months, would clearly have fit inside the period from February 2022 to today. Then there are the wars, which must actually have seemed endless at the time, that are part of the historical record of the world—the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 B.C. with a bit of a truce in the middle.

This catalog of long wars, some of which ended in defeat for the United States, does not by itself prove that we should continue aid to Ukraine. But it is quite premature to declare the Ukrainians’ struggle “endless” and throw in the towel on their behalf. They are fighting for the survival of their country, and we should be willing to help them do so for at least as long as we traded fire with the Barbary Coast pirates. If the goals are worthy—if it is worthy to prevent the annihilation of a free and independent friend of the United States and the West, to prevent a major victory of the global authoritarian axis of Moscow, Beijing, and Teheran, to prevent the reconstitution of the Soviet Union or Russian Empire (take your pick), and to prevent the Russian army from positioning itself adjacent to five more of our central European NATO allies—then we should provide the aid. If we judge the goals unworthy, then we should cease the aid and prepare for the consequences. But let us not beclown ourselves with daft insistence that an 18-month long war is “endless.” 

Some may argue that the war, even if not endless, has no clear end in sight; it could drag on for an immense length of time, or lead to dangerous escalation. This is a more sophisticated argument, to be sure, one that doubtless began as a call for thoughtful strategizing. It is, however, a dead end. The Ukrainians have already declared their war aims, which are eminently just and not at all vague: restoration of Ukrainian territory illegally seized by Russia. They have already retaken much, and they have every right to be given the opportunity to retake the rest. If they cannot, at some point they may have to settle for less. But why should we force Kyiv to declare in advance what it is willing to settle for? No one fights a war that way. 

As for escalation, Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev have been threatening it since February 2022. But Putin, no longer a Marxist, is assuredly still at heart a Leninist, and it was Lenin who advised his followers “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.” The fundamental question in Ukraine has been and remains whether Putin will encounter mush or steel. There is nothing certain in war, and we should be sober about the risks, but it is a bad bet that mush is a safer Western response than steel. What appears as a call for prudence has become a rationalization for the deep imprudence of cutting off aid to Kyiv in mid-war, rewarding naked aggression and bullying threats from Moscow. In the abstract, it means a foreign policy that invites our adversaries to strike our friends and then dig in to outwait us, a foreign policy so risk-averse that we will cede the ground whenever our opponent rattles a nuclear saber. Ukraine might be the first of America’s friends thrown overboard under that policy, but it would not be the last. It should be obvious that there is tremendous risk in that course, though its advocates refuse to see it. 

Altogether, these arguments are far from the mark, both factually and logically. Why otherwise sensible and freedom-loving Americans would be anxious to find reasons to abandon Ukraine to Russia’s murderous aggression is a separate question, worthy of its own study. We used to call Ukraine a Captive Nation, and would pray for its liberation. Now that it has liberated itself and Moscow is waging bloody war to reconquer it, those who are urging us to be indifferent or hostile to its cause need to offer better arguments than they have so far.