The contrast between Ukraine’s remarkable defense of its homeland in the ongoing war with Russia and the rapid collapse of U.S-trained and sponsored government forces in Afghanistan — against the Taliban — is striking. What explains this difference in performance?
Observers point to a number of factors, while ignoring one of the most obvious. The now-defunct Afghanistan government had America’s big shoulders to lean on, and so it did. Kabul became dependent on U.S. protection and could not function without it. For its part, Ukraine has largely had to rely on its own people and ingenuity to defend itself.
The lesson is that military welfare does not work. A helping hand applied too vigorously is no more effective at the international level than at home. Put somewhat differently, Ukraine’s military effort has proven surprisingly successful (at least to date) in part due to limited Western intervention.
Ukraine clearly needs Western aid to repel Russia’s invasion. Russia is much larger and more powerful militarily. Ukraine’s defense budget is roughly one-tenth of Russia’s. The invasion is also imposing a much higher cost on Ukraine economically than on Russia. The World Bank estimates that Ukraine’s economy will sink by roughly 50% this year, while Russia’s economy will suffer an estimated 11% loss.
Left to its own devices, Ukraine would quickly run out of arms and ammunition. And, while the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva by indigenously developed and manufactured Ukrainian Neptune missiles illustrates enormous adaptability and creativity, Ukraine is clearly also at a disadvantage in terms of military technology.
If a little help goes a long way, more should be better, right?
Not necessarily. Especially in public affairs, there can be too much of a good thing. Helping others is generally the right way to go about things. But helping others help themselves is even better. As the saying goes, better to teach a man to fish than to give a man a fish.
Well-meaning individuals and societies occasionally intervene in the affairs of others, usurping their autonomy and prerogatives. “Helicopter” moms descend on youthful crises, stamping out opportunities for growth through adversity and compromising a child’s confidence. In many places in the 1990s, social welfare programs were reformed in an effort to address “a culture of dependence.” Over-doing for others hobbles their ability to manage their own affairs. Every person must face some challenges to grow and become capable.
Something similar happens with military welfare. Usurping another nation’s role in its own defense yields a population that is apathetic and leaders that are corrupt. With a powerful country committed to your protection, there is not much point in doubling down on one’s own defense. The paltry efforts of the weaker state can hardly make much difference alongside that of a great power. Better to focus on other things. Indeed, much of the money intended to fund the nation’s physical protection may begin to find its way into the pockets of politicians or foreign bank accounts. When and if the powerful nation departs, or focuses on other priorities, the dependent state is not ready for prime time.
Far too often, America’s foreign policy has generated military dependencies. In countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, the United States spent vast sums of money and sacrificed countless lives constructing artificial armies that could not stand on their own. These mistakes were later mindlessly replicated in Iraq and Afghanistan.
America’s third-party military successes typically involve countries where the United States has been more hands off. Israel, for example, is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign and military aid. However, Israelis have had to learn to defend themselves. American boots never descended on the ground in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. The result of assistance, rather than intervention, has been a country, and a military, that is legendary for its dramatic, and consistent, military success.
Ukraine dodged the bullet of military welfare that undermined the government of Afghanistan. President Biden and other western leaders made it clear that Ukraine would not be protected from abroad. Forced to rely on their own resources, Ukrainians have risen to the challenge, in the process cementing a free and independent national identity. Western powers are helping, to be sure. They have taught Ukraine to “fish,” playing an important role in converting Ukraine’s military from its weakened state in 2014 — itself a product of lingering dependence that was a holdover from the Soviet Union — to the competent combined arms defensive force of today.
NATO itself reflects some of these same tendencies. In recent years, European members of NATO have been inclined to criticize the United States and to abrogate their own role in collective defense. A series of American presidents called for NATO members to honor their nominal commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense, largely without effect. It took Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blustering to awaken Europe to looming vulnerabilities. And several members now appear prepared to stand up more effective efforts at defending themselves and their allies.
But this effort will fail if it continues to rely on U.S. military welfare. Europe is not poor, as it was in the immediate post-World War II period. It can provide much of its own collective defense. By learning from the Ukraine model, Europeans can become more self-confident, effective, and reliable U.S. allies.
• Erik Gartzke is professor of political science and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
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