Ukraine's success at Lyman suggests that logistics could win the war.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov sounds increasingly frantic. This is not good news, since his warning that “Washington’s increasing involvement in the Ukraine conflict carries growing risks” seems to be falling on ever-deafer ears. With longer-range American missile shipments in the offing, and proposals pouring in for precision bombs to be attached to rockets, Washington doesn’t appear to be over-inclined to heed Russian demands. And with good reason, as Russia continues to callously pummel civilian infrastructure, cutting off power and water as a long cold winter sets in.
As a national strategy, though, does the US policy of “heavy aid” make long-term sense? Are we charting a wise course that will pay dividends in our own increased security, or are we getting drawn into an “entangling alliance” that will ultimately play to Russian advantage?
From a sentimental Norman Rockwell perspective, we’ve enjoyed portraying ourselves as giving Little Brother a stick to fend off the town bully. It satisfies our souls on several levels: we can feel (for a change) that we did the “right thing;” we get to witness our technical superiority on an international stage; and, though we won’t much admit it, we also get to enjoy the daily spectacle of watching a tormenter’s nose get bloodied without getting any on our fronts… And God, how we love a scrappy underdog—especially one so decidedly European as a Ukrainian.
But the world isn’t a Rockwell painting, and things aren’t always as they seem. What is really at play here, and where do we draw the line of our national interest? We’ve become so inured to “lines” lately—red lines, bright lines, “deconfliction” lines—that it becomes difficult to even know what such a distinction would practically mean.
A place to start would be in clarifying our endgame. I recall a few years back when somebody said (rather brilliantly, I thought) that the national security objective should be written on a Post-It note: “We intend to live as free men and women in the continent of North America.” Period. If decisions about the deployment of troops, delivery of weapons, and administration of aid align directly with that simple doctrine, then you have the basis for a wise and sober national policy. Unlike the current National Security Strategy, which is chock full of bromides like “inclusion” and “food security,” it would enforce clarity of purpose.
Granted, such a simplification is just a beginning—all kinds of things can be crammed into various interpretations of even this simple creed. Remember when Mitt Romney was laughed off the stage for stating that Russia was our “number one” geopolitical threat? And how, years later, everyone had to admit that his “1980s” foreign policy was spot-on? In that vein, perhaps our engagement this last year in Ukraine has been an especially prudent move: toppling the primary existential threat to our way of life with a “mere” $20 billion (much of it in the form of expiring or obsolete weapons stores). As France bled its mortal foe England by aiding our upstart colonial rebellion, maybe having Little Brother knock out a few of Boris’s teeth has made our lives just a little bit safer.
Then again, maybe we’re getting played. Maybe, as we get carried away in a tempest of our own moral righteousness, we are setting the scene for a direct confrontation with Russia. Putin, for his part, would dearly love any plausible semblance of a direct war with “The West” since it bolsters his power at home within a highly fragmentary federation.
Unfortunately, despite compelling arguments either way, anyone dissenting from the current Stand-With-Ukraine mantra, Left or Right, is mobbed off the stage. And by “Stand With Ukraine,” the mob means spend vastly more money on vastly more large-scale weapons. Will Ruger has been excoriated by both sides of the spectrum as a “shill for Putin” when he argues for “restrained prudentialism” in our national security policy. But Will has a point: our way of life as free people in North America is unlikely to be seriously threatened by the war in Ukraine.
While neo-isolationists and make-the-world-safe-for-democracy activists haggle over the proper level of U.S. government aid to Ukraine, the moment is ripe for a third way: Liberty-loving private action. The depth and degree of spontaneous private giving in Ukraine is stunning, with more than $5 billion in cash donations alone and untold hours of volunteer labor. In addition to offering genuine and effective support to Ukrainians, concerted private action does two things: First, it lets us stand on moral principle—demonstrating our resolve to support free people against aggression without escalating geopolitics into World War III because people, not the state, are supporting Ukraine. Second, it reminds us how we can effectively broaden the sphere of collective action beyond government. Not everything worth doing can, or should, be done by the state, and private support for Ukraine’s resistance shows us the power of collective, uncoerced action.
To be sure, $5 billion and a bunch of volunteer hours do not compare to hundreds of billions in allied government spending, and the Ukrainians I know prefer Stingers to care packages. But maybe, as a matter of national policy it’s time to recognize that enough is enough—and to pass the battle baton back to the private sphere. The strategic damage has been done to our former primary threat (now a distant second), and the message has been sent to those who would fill Russian shoes: the West is not entirely absorbed in effete woke navel-gazing.
Instead of ratcheting up the pressure (and expense) for ever-diminishing geopolitical returns, the U.S. could announce it is provisionally plateauing its arms shipments as the conflict grinds into a likely stalemate in the Donbas. Signal that it is ready to ramp up arms deliveries if Russia attempts any further incursions, but that in the interim it is turning the impetus over to its prosperous, motivated, free citizens.
Some of the limited things the U.S. government might do during this strategic “idle”:
- Facilitate volunteer travel, especially ex-military, who are willing and able to train or fight, with visas and expedited passport processing. Diplomatically clear the Polish and Ukrainian bureaucratic border thickets.
- Promote voluntary private donations, such as to the Arsenal of Liberty, which channel donated weapons and ammunition to the front. Help the Ukrainian population bristle with lethal defense.
- Give 1:1 tax deductions and credits for all donations to the Ukrainian cause (including hourly in-kind volunteering). Make giving less onerous.
Doing these things while leveling off major weapons deliveries would govern the spooling-up machinery of our military-industrial complex and will ultimately help make us safer. Such a strategy of calibrated national restraint could not only be good for our national interest, but for our national character as well. In a country culturally tuned to “more,” we need to become better at knowing what “enough” looks like.
Russia’s Ryabkov says that he is “…sending signals to the Americans that their line of escalation and ever deeper involvement in this conflict is fraught with dire consequences. The risks are growing.” He’s probably right, the risks are growing, though largely because of Russia’s breathtakingly poor battlefield performance. The bluster, however, is part of the Russian strategy: they are teasing us, knowing that (as big dumb Americans) we can’t resist a pugnacious jab at a thinly veiled threat. If we take the bait, as we seem inclined to do, they win. All the more reason to hit the “pause” button and turn the heavy lift of this resistance over to free people helping other free people. The message, both at home and abroad, would be unmistakable.