American weapons are pouring into Ukraine.
President Joe Biden requested that Congress send $33 billion of emergency aid to the country at war with Russia, and the US House increased the pot to $40 billion, with about 60 percent going toward security assistance in some form or another. A bipartisan majority in the Senate is expected to approve it this week. It’s an unprecedented ramp-up that builds on the rapid transfer of billions’ worth of weapons already sent.
As Russia’s brutal invasion enters its third month, it’s clear why the US, a close partner of Ukraine and ally of 29 other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, has made support for the country a national security priority. But it’s worth stepping back to consider the sheer scale of the military aid headed to Ukraine, what it means for the country’s future, and whether those weapons will end up where they’re supposed to.
An apples-to-apples comparison of US security assistance to Ukraine versus to other countries is not so simple, because the aid comes from so many different funds and because security assistance comes in many forms. (This isn’t unique to Ukraine; tracking the various streams of security assistance the US sends around the globe is complicated enough that think tanks have whole programs devoted to it.)
The most conservative analysis of US security assistance directly for Ukraine, allocated since Russia’s February 24 invasion, will come to about $9.8 billion once Congress passes the new appropriation.
That includes the $6 billion for a new fund called the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative in the forthcoming bill, according to a fact sheet published by the House Appropriations Committee. That will go toward weapons, the salaries of military officials, and other forms of intelligence, logistics, and training support. It’s in addition to the $3.8 billion worth of weapons from the US’s own stockpiles that the Biden administration has dispatched since February.
“You know they’re ramping it up when they create a whole separate budget category for it,” says Lauren Woods, who closely tracks arms budgets as director of the Center for International Policy’s security assistance monitor. “This is a really enormous request, and I’m really not sure most Americans get how big this is.”
Compare Ukraine’s $9.8 billion to the $4 billion the US gave last year to Afghanistan before the US withdrew troops, or the roughly $3 billion or more the US has given Israel each year for four decades.
The US has sent everything from Javelin anti-tank missiles to Switchblade drones, artillery and body armor, and increasingly some high-tech equipment like laser-guided rocket systems, surveillance radar, and Mi-17 helicopters, as detailed in a recent list circulated by the Department of Defense. And it’s having a real effect on the battlefield, as Russia’s scaled-down offensive in the east sputters.
That tranche for Ukraine is only part of the picture.
The number could be even bigger, as there’s $4 billion of foreign military financing (US taxpayer dollars to underwrite other countries’ purchase of US weapons) allocated to Ukraine and NATO allies in the congressional appropriation.
Then there’s the $8.7 billion of funds in the congressional package to replenish US stockpiles of weapons, probably backfilling much of what has been sent to Ukraine since the Russian invasion was launched in February, especially missiles. The Biden administration sent those under what’s called the drawdown authority, so that emergency weapons could reach the country as quickly as possible.
Experts say they have never seen those stockpiles retrieved from at this volume. There’s also $3.9 billion for European partners supporting the mission (including hardship pay for troops), $600 million for the US to increase its weapons production, and $500 million for the Pentagon to buy more munitions, which all together comes to about $24 billion, a staggering number according to each of the experts I interviewed.
The US is far and away the world’s largest arms seller and provider of military assistance. It’s a central part of American foreign policy, so this method of support is, in one sense, unsurprising. But still, taken all together, the aid to Ukraine is gigantic compared to what the US sends abroad in a given year. Typically, according to the Security Assistance Monitor, US military aid globally hovered around $20 billion in most years since 2013, with 2007 reaching a high of $30.6 billion.
In short, it’s a massive investment in Ukrainian and European security. If the war in Ukraine drags on for years, this level of funding will arguably not be sustainable. Already it’s shaping Ukraine’s pushback to Russia’s invasion, but it may also catalyze other long-term effects.
What so many weapons could mean for Ukraine
Earlier this month, Biden visited the Lockheed Martin factory that builds anti-tank missiles known as Javelins, which have become a much-desired commodity in Ukraine’s fight against Russian forces. That visit captured just how integrated military support is in US foreign policy, particularly in a conflict where the US isn’t going to directly involve itself.
“So these weapons, touched by the hands — your hands — are in the hands of Ukrainian heroes, making a significant difference,” Biden told workers at Lockheed’s Troy, Alabama, facility.
It would have been “unthinkable” for Biden to visit a weapons factory before the Ukraine war, according to Elias Yousif, an analyst at the Stimson Center. “The president came into office promoting an expanded view of human rights considerations in US foreign policy,” he told me. “The optics of touring the arms factory maybe just doesn’t align very well with that messaging.”
Biden’s presence at Lockheed, his visit to an Ohio metals factory along with executives from other arms makers days later, and a Pentagon roundtable with further executives from the weapons industry to see how to boost supply chains epitomized the emergence of the wartime president. William Hartung, a military budget expert at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, says “certainly more than half” of foreign military financing ends up in the pockets of military contractors like Lockheed.
The most significant forward-looking question is what will happen with all these weapons. Ukraine ranks in the bottom third of the watchdog group Transparency International’s corruption ranking, and there are serious concerns about Ukraine in recent years being a nexus of illicit arms trafficking. “Ukraine certainly has problems with corruption, and if that’s the case in a country, you can be sure that some of these weapons will be lost or transferred or sold,” Woods, a former State Department official, told me.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) held up the Senate bill on Thursday as he called for a government watchdog to oversee taxpayer funds going to Ukraine. “I would say that we agree oversight is critical. That’s why the package already includes millions of dollars to support additional oversight measures, including additional funding for existing inspectors general,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a briefing.
Congress is building an accounting process into the massive funding bill to oversee what weapons are actually bought, and an “end-use monitoring” program to ensure that the arms sent to Ukraine end up where they’re supposed to be. (The 1976 Arms Export Control Act requires US weapons transfers to have end-use monitoring.) That’s not an end-all solution. “In fact, the term ‘end-use monitoring’ is a bit of a misnomer, since it doesn’t actually monitor end-use,” Yousif told me. “What it does is essentially catalog the location and stewardship of US-origin defense articles. It doesn’t really, let’s say, track how a government or country is using the equipment, just that equipment is accounted for in some way.”
Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine, said that it’s difficult to monitor end-use during wartime, but the country is trying. “What I’m hearing from our armed forces and Ministry of Defense, is we are ready to implement whatever mechanisms are needed — digital tools, procedures to upgrade our system to the highest possible level in mind with NATO standards,” Kaleniuk said while visiting Washington to advocate for the aid package to Ukraine, in particular F-16s from American stockpiles, tanks, and other advanced weapons. “We desperately need weapons to win the war and are willing to do whatever is needed to make our NATO allies, especially the US, happy and trust us.”
It’s easier to monitor where large weaponry ends up, but small arms and ammunition are a challenge, and in the past when transfers have accelerated this quickly they have sometimes landed in the hands of US enemies.
The worst-case scenario would be more arms contributing to new spillover effects, even perhaps bringing the US more directly into conflict with Russia, a nuclear power. “Does it lead to escalation of the war, or even some engagement between US and NATO troops and Russian forces, like if Putin decides he’s going to bomb the supply lines for the weapons?” Hartung said. “Going so quickly, with so little discussion, also raises that risk.”
The Biden administration has portrayed Ukraine’s resolve against Russia as a battle of freedom versus tyranny, one worth investing in. The security assistance is helping “support Ukraine’s ability to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity and to stand against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked assault,” Jessica Lewis, the State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week.
One thing is clear: this level of immediate support to Ukraine and European allies goes beyond even the heights of yearly US security aid to Afghanistan or Iraq.