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Kaveh Shahrooz: Aid to Ukraine is not charity
Ukrainians are bleeding for the West’s long-term defence. And if we don’t support them in that endeavour now, we risk spending far more on own defence in the future.
By: Kaveh Shahrooz
As Ukraine’s war of defence against Russia drags on, the early unity that characterized Western reaction to Putin’s naked aggression has frayed. Predictably, a new anti-Ukraine talking point is emerging.
This shot is focused on mocking Ukraine for its requests for aid.
The message is parroted in places high and low. No less than the world’s Troll-in-Chief, Elon Musk, shouted it to his 159 million X subscribers when he posted a famous meme of an agitated schoolboy, the boy’s face replaced by Musk with that of Volodymyr Zelensky, with the caption: “when it’s been 5 minutes and you haven’t asked for a billion dollars in aid.”
Ukraine aid also became a sticking point during the U.S. government budget negotiations; the proposed $6 billion assistance package to Ukraine collapsed in the process. Matt Gaetz and other far-right lawmakers in the U.S. who effectively blocked this aid, and ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy (who still hasn’t been replaced after more than two weeks), were cheered on by commentators in the right-wing media ecosystem.
The Federalist’s Sean Davis tweeted: “I don’t want to even hear the word ‘Ukraine’ from the new speaker until after the border is secured, DOJ’s weaponization is defunded, the censorship-industrial complex is nuked, gas is back below $2/gal, inflation is eliminated, America’s economy is decoupled from China, and the budget is balanced.”
It is this opposition, increasingly popular among Americans, that led President Joe Biden to explicitly link the support of Israel, which recently suffered a brutal invasion, with continued support of Ukraine. “Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common,” Biden said in rare Oval Office address on Thursday. “They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy — completely annihilate it.” The president later added: “American leadership is what holds the world together. American alliances are what keep us, America, safe. American values are what make us a partner that other nations want to work with. To put all that at risk if we walk away from Ukraine, if we turn our backs on Israel, it’s just not worth it.”
It’s an important message and one Biden felt moved to offer for a reason. There is real fatigue with support for Ukraine and real danger that Israel’s war will overshadow Ukraine’s continued resistance. And this is not limited to the United States. Here at home, the same problems are developing. In a recent and contentious interaction that went viral, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was heckled by a man who chastised him for the price of housing, the carbon tax, and the fact that Trudeau is “sending [money] over to Ukraine…to the guy that’s slaughtering his own country.”
The common thread that runs through all these arguments is the same: charity begins at home, and with tremendous economic pressures in play domestically, it is senseless to send money halfway across the world to a war that has nothing to do with us.
This line of argument is, of course, not new. For as long as wealthier countries have delivered foreign aid, some have argued that the money is better spent dealing with problems within borders rather then outside them.
But when this logic is applied to Ukraine funding, the argument is revealed to be particularly weak. It is a classic category error. Musk, Gaetz, Davis, and the man who swore at Trudeau see the money given to Ukraine as money given solely for Ukraine’s benefit. They think we would benefit more from keeping it.
Firstly, this misunderstands the nature of the aid itself. Much of the “aid” granted to Ukraine by the U.S. isn’t in the form of a straight dollar transfer, but rather through donations of old military equipment from its expansive stockpiles. Much of that material is reaching the end of its normal lifecycle, and is very unlikely to be used by domestic military forces — in fact, it costs the U.S. military money to store or scrap this equipment.
Further, I would submit to you that the funds we give to Ukraine are only tangentially for the benefit of that country. That money is, in essence, being spent on our own defence.
Since the end of the Cold War, we have enjoyed the dividends of a unipolar world and operated under a temporary tranquility offered by Pax Americana. But as China rises, former powers like Russia transform into aggressive gangster states, and American power recede, that period of calm is ending. What is emerging in its place is a battle between two blocs: the Western world and its allies with liberal-democratic values, and a network of others which author Anne Applebaum calls “Autocracy Inc.”
With well-known members like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Belarus, Cuba and Venezuela, the Autocracy Inc. coalition is now large and growing each day. A string of coups in Africa have replaced a number of relatively-free governments with military juntas. Countries like Hungary, the Philippines and Turkey are facing what political scientists call “democratic backsliding.”
Autocracy Inc. is already attacking us on many fronts. Iran’s regime attempts acts of transnational repression on U.S. soil, to say nothing of the havoc it is believed to have contributed to in Israel. China is openly interfering in Canadian elections and using intimidation tactics against our lawmakers. Belarus forces foreign civilian planes to land so that it can arrest a dissident, against all international norms.
Perhaps no act of aggression from the Autocracy Inc. coalition is a more direct assault on the Western world than Russia’s attack on Ukraine, a Western-leaning nation with aspirations of joining NATO and the EU.
By supporting Ukraine, the West is engaged in several acts: first, it is drawing a line in the sand on the very central principle of international law that countries cannot simply annex their neighbours when the mood strikes (this was an uncontroversial position in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.) A steadfast commitment to this principle will be central to any future defence of Western interests when they come under military attack.
Second, the West is indirectly weakening the Russian military so that a stronger Russian force does not knock at NATO’s door in the Baltic states. Such an attack on a military ally will oblige us to respond in kind.
Finally, and most importantly, our aid is sending a clear signal about our commitment and willingness to use force to other autocrats. The message is that autocratic regime cannot attack Western nations without pricing in a very economically costly and bloody battle. The warning should be directed most clearly at Beijing, which has undoubtedly been thinking of making Taiwan the next theatre of war between Autocracy Inc. and the West.
All of these outcomes are of immense value to a democratic West that is, perhaps without realizing it, already engaged in a vast cold (and sometimes hot) war against its ideological opponents around the globe.
The West may be spending money in Ukraine. But it is not an act of charity. To put it another way, Ukrainians are bleeding for the West’s long-term defence. And if we don’t support them in that endeavour now, we risk spending far more on own defence in the future, fighting to protect our own countries on our own soil. Ask Ukraine what that is like. Or ask the Israelis.
Kaveh Shahrooz is a lawyer, human rights activist and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
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