Just How Long Should the US Send Aid to Ukraine?
History can help us understand whether Kyiv’s situation better resembles Afghanistan or Colombia.
It is fair to ask how long the United States should provide large-scale military support to Ukraine. Since Russia’s invasion in February, Washington has committed more than $16.8 billion in security assistance. The Biden administration has pledged to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes” and is taking steps to provide longer-term assistance.
U.S. taxpayers, however, are facing high inflation and the prospect of further economic contraction. The United States also has a poor record of recent military aid. Despite more than $80 billion of U.S. support over two decades, Afghanistan’s forces collapsed as the Taliban swept into Kabul last year. Should future U.S. assistance be measured in months, or at most a few years, especially if Ukraine is no longer in danger of being overrun by Russia?
The short answer is no. If the United States provides long-term assistance—likely for more than 10 years, not only could Ukraine secure its future against a revanchist Russia, Washington could gain a first-rate military partner. Because of its legitimate government, capable leaders, level of socio-economic development, highly motivated public, and combat experience, among other factors, Ukraine has a strong foundation on which to build. As a result, U.S. support could have an exponential impact on Ukrainian military capabilities. The United States would be a major beneficiary, allowing U.S. forces to focus on potential conflicts outside of Europe over the coming years.
Recent history is illustrative. In Afghanistan, U.S. efforts to create a proficient military were akin to building on quicksand. The Afghan government lacked popular legitimacy. Pervasive corruption and cronyism deprived units of good leadership, manpower, and material. Afghanistan’s underdevelopment, including widespread illiteracy, compounded these problems, making training and maintaining equipment all the more difficult. The result was demoralized, ill-equipped troops in much of the force. It is no surprise that many soldiers did not fight during the decisive Taliban drive on the capital.
In contrast, U.S. support for Colombia in the 2000s was critical in transforming its armed forces into the most capable military in Latin America. With bipartisan support, the United States provided $10 billion of security assistance for over a decade and enabled Colombia to defeat the FARC insurgency there. Today, Colombia is the leading U.S. partner in South America and a source of stability in the region. However, this outcome was only possible because Colombia had a legitimate democratic government, skilled leaders, and a substantial level of development. This foundation allowed Colombia to absorb, use, and sustain the training and equipment Washington provided.
If Afghanistan is at one end of the spectrum and Colombia is at the other, Ukraine clearly falls toward the latter. While Ukraine has faced governance and corruption challenges, it has a democratically-elected government with public legitimacy and capable civilian and military leaders. Ukraine’s level of socioeconomic development is also relatively high with strong industries and a vibrant civil society. Ukraine’s population—over 40 million—is one of the largest in Europe and has mobilized to join and support the military. Ukrainian troops have also gained invaluable combat experience in a highly kinetic conventional war—experience that even many U.S. troops do not have. However, for Ukraine to build a first-rate military, U.S. support to Ukraine must last years.
Ukraine has to replace much of its Soviet-era military armaments with Western weaponry—a lengthy process. Ukraine’s equipment and ammunition are being destroyed, damaged, and expended at unsustainable rates. Ukraine has limited stocks and production capability and using captured Russian weapons is not sufficient. Ukraine’s neighbors are providing their old Soviet-era equipment, but those supplies are also running out.
Ukraine will need substantial quantities of Western arms in the long term. Unlike Soviet-era equipment, the United States and its allies can produce and sustain these weapons, which have shown their effectiveness on the battlefield. However, meeting this new demand will likely take years. The United States and its allies have already drawn down their own limited stockpiles to support Ukraine and cannot quickly increase production. These countries must award new contracts, boost production capacity, and manufacture significant quantities.
While Kyiv and its supporters must decide how best to equip the Ukrainian military going forward, developing and executing a long-term plan are vital. To expand production lines, private industry must make major investments, which only make sense if there will be enough demand years into the future. Executing a plan will also help the United States and its allies reduce the different types of systems provided to Ukraine. Kyiv is currently receiving a variety of Western arms. As each system has different training, logistics, and maintenance requirements, Western support is less efficient and effective than it should be.
Equipping the Ukrainian military with Western weapons will also require a long-term effort to enable Ukraine to sustain them. In Colombia and Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, the United States used large numbers of U.S. contractors to maintain equipment. While the war rages in Ukraine, this is not an option given concerns over the risk of a U.S.-Russia conflict. Moreover, due to Ukraine’s size, it is not feasible to transport significant quantities of Western equipment to nearby countries for repair. As a result, the United States and its allies must train significant numbers of Ukrainians to maintain the equipment. Building the necessary expertise in Ukraine will take time.
The United States and its allies will also need to increase the training of Ukrainian troops. Efforts are underway. For example, British forces are training in the UK up to 10,000 new recruits for several weeks. However, a long-term program that trains many more soldiers is necessary. At the outset of Russia’s invasion in February, Ukraine's total active armed forces reportedly numbered about 200,000. In addition, thousands of volunteers joined with minimal training. Since the invasion in February, Ukrainian forces have suffered heavy casualties. The Ukrainian government has said 100 to 200 of its troops are being killed every day. The frontline is also over 1,000 miles, requiring the deployment of many troops.
Over the coming years, Ukraine will need to train hundreds of thousands to replace its losses, generate new formations, and retrain existing units to use new equipment and hone tactics necessary for the next phases of the war, such as the integration of infantry, armor, artillery, and air support for offensive operations. Ukraine’s ability to spare personnel for such training, not U.S. and ally capacity, should be the only limiting factor in the pace and scale of training.
A policy of long-term assistance to Ukraine would have other benefits beyond creating a first-class military that secures the country’s future and serves as a key partner for the United States. It would signal to Russia that it cannot outlast the West’s support and put to rest doubts about the reliability of the United States as a military partner following the withdrawal from Afghanistan. It would support a badly needed expansion of the U.S. defense industrial base as the war has shown the importance of production capacity in a time of potential great power conflict. But political leaders in Washington on both sides of the aisle must make the case to the public, approve the necessary funding, and execute a well-designed plan.
Erik Swabb served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer in Iraq, in the UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia, and as General Counsel of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.