When President Lyndon B. Johnson sent two battalions of U.S. Marines ashore the beaches at Danang in Vietnam on March 8, 1965, he probably had never imagined that America’s subsequent gradual military escalation would reach the height of over half a million troops, suffering more than 58,000 casualties, and eventually resulting in a totally disgraceful withdrawal after 8 years of brutal but futile fighting to shore up the Saigon regime.
Today Washington’s military involvement in Ukraine hauntingly mirrors the Vietnam War experience, other than that it is of course not the Pentagon that is bleeding this time, but the U.S. Treasury. At the outset, President Biden made it clear that there will be no direct fighting by American G.I. in Ukraine. But the gradual escalation of military equipment and other types of defense assistance rushed into Ukraine keeps mounting at an astonishing pace.
A hundred thirty some days into the war, the White House has already announced 15 waves of military assistance, including guns, ammunitions, vehicles, howitzers, drones, helicopters, Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and etc. Both the quantity and the quality of these arms shipments have been steadily increasing. In addition to the large sum of $13.6 billion defense aid package approved by the U.S. Congress, which was quickly drawn down and depleted, additional sum of $3.35 billion worth of arms altogether has been announced by the White House in about a dozen batches. In total, nearly $17 billion has been shelled out so far in just four months, averaging to at least $4 billion a month.
Nevertheless every indication from the battlefield in Ukraine points to a prolonged war. When in Warsaw in late March, Biden himself publicly pledged to prepare for the long haul. My rough estimate would put a total price tag of close to $100 billion a year of defense spending in Ukraine, including military aid pitched in from other European and NATO allies, if this war is going to continue for another year.
And that is not even close to what Russians are spending. According to American military expert Robert Farley (who is incidentally often quoted in Russian official publications), Moscow has been spending half a billion dollar a day so far for this war, which amounts to about $180 billion a year. So the $100 billion a year estimate for Kyiv should not be so much out of whack. And on top of that, there is also the need for additional economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, which probably adds another $100 billion a year. That is a $200 billion a year price tag for this war, which will be mostly paid by Americans.
But then the Ukrainians are not winning. The war lasting a year may well be a gross underestimate, as Moscow appears to be gaining momentum on the battleground for the moment. There is no doubt that Kyiv has put up a courageous fight. It has put up an even more courageous fight in the media war, winning every battle so far. But for real battles on the ground, unfortunately Kyiv has lost each one of them. It announced it was an organized retreat from Sievierodonetsk to Lysychansk. Then it was again an organized retreat from Lysychansk to Siversk. Now Siversk is under siege, perhaps waiting for another organized retreat. The entire Luhansk Oblast is now firmly under Russian control. The other three major Donetsk cities are not fairing much better either. Bakhmut, Slavyansk, Kramators are within striking reach of Russians’ steady advancement.
Before winter comes, the Donetsk Oblast may well see the same fate as Luhansk. The question is, will Moscow be content with the entire Donbas region, which is originally supposed to be super-autonomous from Kyiv anyway in the two Minsk agreements, or will it keep marching on to conquer Mykolaiv, Odesa, Zaporizhia in the south, and perhaps even Kharkiv in the north?
Regardless of whether Moscow will grab a larger share of Ukraine for its Novorossiya dream, the fact of the matter is that Russia is not going to be defeated in Ukraine, period. As the war is currently unfolding, it is particularly not going to be kicked out of Ukraine by the end of the year as President Zelensky declares. On the contrary, it is winning and it is winning big, albeit slowly and steadily. By the end of the year, Moscow’s evisceration of Ukraine may cover large parts of the Kherson Oblast, the Zaporizhia Oblast, the Kharkiv Oblast, and in addition to the entire two oblasts in Donbas.
If this scenario happens, the best that Washington can sugarcoat it is to call it a stalemate. And a long-term stalemate like the Korean peninsula is not going to be good for Washington. It is going to be a military nightmare as well as a political disaster for the Biden administration. It is a total defeat, in fact, on Washington’s part, because this essentially proxy war is turning into another Americanized, Forever War. The U.S. Treasury will need to keep pumping the bulk of the $200 billion a year into Ukraine and the Pentagon will continue to be largely tied up in NATO territories around Ukraine. At the same time, America will continue to see high energy and food prices, which underlie the high-flying inflation now. And this current status scenario can easily last for several years.
Washington essentially has two choices if it wants to change. It can substantially up the ante its commitment to Ukraine by several times of magnitude, and hopefully the Ukrainians will turn the tide on the battlefields. Then we are talking about substantially different arms shipments for things like long range artilleries, rockets, missiles and even state-of-the-art fighter jets. In essence Washington will have to transform Ukraine into another military power on the order of Japan or South Korea, which may cost up to half a trillion dollar a year in the end. And maybe, only maybe, Russia may be defeated in Ukraine within a year.
And this has to be done very carefully to avoid triggering a Third World War of even nuclear proportions. By the way, no historic precedent exists that a country can win a war against a much more powerful opponent with practically its entire arsenal a hundred percent manufactured and donated overseas. So this is a long, long shot.
Or Washington can choose “out”, which means to cut loss and settle for a smaller Ukraine perhaps in line with the original spirit of the Minsk agreements. Land for peace is understandably hard for Kyiv to swallow, but at least this is something that Washington can shove down the throat of Mr. Zelensky if it chooses to. Without spending an arm and a leg, this option still meets Washington’s strategic goal with respect to NATO in terms of keeping America’s relevance in Europe, asking Europeans to pay a larger share of NATO, checking their continental independence penchant, and also relieving itself from committing too many defense resources there that could be used to pursue some other interests, perhaps in the Indo-Pacific.
In a nutshell, Washington is faced with an in-or-out choice. “In” requires spending tons of money more than now so as for the Ukrainians to fight an entirely different war. And even then this option has a long shot to succeed. “Out” means peace, albeit peace with tail between legs. The status quo is a slowly-bleeding-to-death path both militarily and politically. Another Forever War, another decade-long fiscal drain, and another humiliating eventual withdrawal will be in order. That is just a total American defeat. Will Washington change, and what choice will it make?