One year ago today, Ukraine’s early morning quiet was shattered by Russian shelling and bombing after months of diplomacy attempts failed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a sinister “special military operation” to “demilitarize” Ukraine but supposedly not occupy the former Soviet state.
Almost immediately, the powers of the West sprang to action.
The Biden administration pledged its unflinching support for Ukraine and flooded the country with emergency aid. Thousands of deaths and tens of billions of dollars in U.S. aid later, Ukraine has staved off a Russian takeover, but Russia still controls several parts of the country.
Not long ago, the U.S. extricated itself in disastrous fashion from a two-decade conflict in the Middle East, but President Biden appears prepared to commit Americans indefinitely to another war.
“Freedom is priceless. It’s worth fighting for, for as long as it takes. And that’s how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President. As long as it takes,” Biden promised Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky this week after a surprise visit to Kyiv.
“President Putin’s craven lust for land and power will fail,” Biden said. He called out the Russian leader by name 10 times over the course of his remarks.
In 2022, Congress approved more than $113 billion in aid to Ukraine. Not all of the funds have been spent yet, but they come in the form of military, economic, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and its allies.
About $67 billion is for defense, while the other $46 billion is for items like economic aid, refugee resettlement, and general Ukrainian government aid. The direct military aid to Ukraine consists mostly of military weapons, equipment, training, and supplies.
More than 75% of the aid will be spent by the end of 2026, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated.
On top of all this, Biden promised another half a billion dollars in military aid to Ukraine this week in Kyiv. With a new Republican majority controlling the House though, Biden may struggle to get Congress to approve any more aid.
Other countries have also sent aid to Ukraine, but the U.S. far outpaced them. Britain, the second most generous nation, has sent Ukraine only $8.8 billion so far, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German think tank.
War is always expensive. For perspective though, the U.S. spent $146 billion over 20 years for military and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, where it was much more expensive to send soldiers.
The U.S. aid to Ukraine will almost definitely be abused, warns John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which provides oversight for U.S. spending in Afghanistan.
“When you spend so much money so quickly, with so little oversight, you’re going to have fraud, waste and abuse,” Sopko said. “Massive amounts.”
Indeed, critics worry about sending massive amounts of American taxpayer dollars to a Ukrainian regime that has been plagued by corruption allegations. Before his country pivoted to war, President Zelensky’s government had been busy targeting his political rival, Ukraine’s former president, with treason charges that some said were trumped up. Last month, Zelensky fired nearly a dozen top officials in an attempt to contain a slew of corruption scandals that threatened to dampen his currently rosy reputation. He also exercises a level of control over Ukraine’s media that critics say smacks of authoritarianism.
Now though, the 45-year-old former comedy actor has successfully recast his image as a heroic underdog defending democracy from the West’s familiar bogeyman, Russia. The massive amount of U.S. support he’s managed to solicit has not been insignificant in bolstering his public image.
He’s rarely seen now without his signature army green sweatsuit, a look evoking a busy, hands-on wartime leader. The sweatsuit stayed on even at a special joint meeting of Congress in December, where Zelensky urged Congress to keep the cash coming.
His impatience for more emergency aid has sometimes irked even his strongest supporters. Even Biden got fed up with Zelensky at one point. The president reportedly rebuked Zelensky during a phone call in June when he asked for even more aid. Some also suspect Zelensky is attempting to drag the U.S. into the war by claiming that Russia fired missiles into North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) territory.
Meanwhile, the death toll has climbed.
More than 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, although the exact number is uncertain, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in November. At least 8,000 civilians have been killed and nearly 13,300 injured since Russia invaded, according to the United Nations human rights office, which cautioned that the true number is likely significantly higher. The war has also displaced more than eight million Ukrainians who fled their country, causing a refugee crisis across the continent, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
As many as 60,000 Russians have been killed so far among about 200,000 Russian casualties, according to a U.K. estimate, far from the “walk in the park” the Russian military was promised when Putin first mulled the offensive. In recent weeks, Russia has been gaining ground again, however.
The U.S. does not have boots on the ground in Ukraine, but at least six known Americans have died after volunteering to fight in the conflict.
As the conflict drags on, Americans’ enthusiasm for bankrolling the war has flagged despite copious virtue-signaling from Democrats. Less than half of Americans now support sending Ukraine weapons, according to a poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Back in May, 60% of Americans said they supported sending Ukraine weapons.
Americans are also noticing that the U.S. has several crises at home that could use a billion dollars or two, including the southern border, spiking fentanyl overdoses, and rising homelessness.
Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) argued that while he understands Zelensky’s motivation, the U.S. must make decisions in the best interest of Americans.
“He’s trying to look out for the interests of his people who are being invaded, so that’s all fine,” Hawley said. “We’ve got to make our own judgment about what’s good for our people and our interests.”
Zelensky has insisted that sending Ukraine aid does just that.
“Your money is not charity,” he told Congress, but “an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”
As the war enters its second year, the multi-billion dollar question is whether he’s right.