The Risk of America Abandoning Ukraine

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a $95.3 billion military aid package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan after a rare all-night session. While the bill’s passage marks a win for the Biden Administration after months of GOP resistance to the $60 billion intended for Ukraine, the bill faces a steep hurdle clearing the Republican-controlled House. That resistance is threatening to undermine what has defined America’s role in the world—and our national identity—since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared us the “great arsenal of democracy” in 1940.

A Ukrainian friend and classmate recently asked me why any American joins the military when they’re surrounded by Mexico and Canada, two countries that pose no threat of invasion. As a U.S. Army veteran, I found this question funny at first; the likelihood of our neighbors attacking never crossed my mind, let alone factored into my decision.

It then got me thinking. Why isn’t that something I ever considered? Why do so many Americans decide to put their lives at risk by joining the military when there hasn’t been a war fought on U.S. territory in over a century? There are practical explanations like pay, healthcare, and tuition benefits, but when service members are asked why they joined, “patriotism” and a “sense of duty” rank at the top.

This sense of duty is tied to serving abroad. Members of the military aren’t alone in their motivation for international service. Private citizens in America donate more money overseas per capita than any other nation. The very identity of the U.S. is rooted in the belief that when we perceive a global injustice, it’s our responsibility to intervene, and crucially, that we’re capable of succeeding when we do.

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This belief is anchored to World War II, when America first emerged as the world’s premier superpower. We established our global position by declaring it our moral imperative to prevent fascism from consuming the world and using our unparalleled resources to make that happen. It’s the era we proudly return to most frequently in pop-culture, films, and television. We’ve affectionately named those who lived through the period the “greatest generation.” This is the American ideal we’ve clung to ever since, built on three foundational pillars: a clear moral cause, the hubris to believe it’s our responsibility to act, and the unmatched resources needed to realize our vision.

Many of our geopolitical efforts since have maintained the same facade—superior resources and the cross-continental exertion of our will—but have lacked the clearcut moral raison d’être behind them. Our misguided nation-building efforts in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and our invasion of Iraq based on the false pretense of WMDs, all underscore a lacking sense of purpose. The war in Ukraine is different. An outright evil Russian conquest has killed tens of thousands as Moscow seeks to dismantle democracy and reassume hegemonic control of its neighbor. Ukraine isn’t asking for manpower, just the means to fully repel an invasion that has captured nearly 20% of its land.

While traveling across Ukraine last summer with a nonprofit aid group, the sight of a small town in eastern Ukraine hammered into me the indiscriminate nature of Russia’s onslaught. Two kids rode bikes in the decimated town center. One boy told our group of volunteers what each surrounding building once was—apartments, a hospital, a town administrative office—and where he was when Russian artillery rained down. His family survived. Many of his neighbors did not. European nations are providing crucial assistance to hold Russia at bay and avoid their own similar fate, but to stop Russia’s advance and maintain its sovereignty, Ukraine needs military resources only the U.S. can provide.

But we are at risk of abandoning Ukraine, and with it, our NATO partners. Donald Trump’s “America First” ideology permeates the far-right argument that supporting Ukraine puts “America last.” Matt Gaetz’s “Ukraine Fatigue Resolution” claims aid packages are “weakening United States readiness.” Rand Paul asserts that there is “no end in sight” to the war and that we can’t afford to support Ukraine in an ”endless quagmire.” JD Vance concedes we must “accept Ukraine is going to have to cede some territory to the Russians.” If these lawmakers want to make America great again, could their fatalistic rhetoric stray further from what defined the “greatest generation”?

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The rationalizations for opposing further aid have been refuted time and again; we’ve provided less than 2% of our massive federal budget, and a majority of the money designated for Ukraine in fact stays in the U.S. Our support has helped Ukraine deplete a significant portion of our longest standing foe’s materiel and personnel, without the loss of one American soldier. What’s most alarming about Republicans’ resistance to Ukraine aid is not the tired financial arguments, it’s the defeatist resignation that the U.S. is no longer willing and able to step up when we’re needed. 

As the world approaches a boiling point and U.S. interests become increasingly threatened in the Middle East, Europe, and the Asia Pacific, demonstrating unwavering commitment to our allies should be a no-brainer. Yet Republican lawmakers have played political games to block aid packages, and nearly half of their voters now feel we’re giving Ukraine too much support. Russia appears content to suffer casualties, biding its time until Ukraine exhausts the means to defend itself.

Much of the world still believes the U.S. is a force for global peace and stability. In the hospital recovering after Russian artillery shells landed near his trench, Yurii, a Ukrainian soldier and newly minted grandfather, told me last August that American backing matters “because we feel that we are not alone, that truth is on our side.” Ceasing support for Ukraine would not just spell a moral and geopolitical failure, it would serve as the final straw, officially pronouncing the death of the American mythos we have clung to for generations.

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