Fragments from a War Diary, Part #134
I had a conversation last night which made me realise that a lot of people in Ukraine may not understand the extent to which the West has committed itself in resisting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and that they may not understand the nature of the Russian strategy in occupying Ukraine which is relying upon the fact that the West’s political attention span is shorter than that in Russia. None of what I am about to say is a justification of Russia’s actions; quite the opposite. Russia can act in the way I am going to describe because she is a dictatorship and she is fighting a coalition of democracies. Nevertheless Russia, for all her military incompetence and unpleasant tactics with her mammoth army, is planning on waiting the West out.
While Ukraine is paying for this war in blood, the West is paying for it in treasure. The current debates in Washington, DC about whether or not to approve additional military and other funding for the war in Ukraine are not just a party-political football that marks an early beginning to the US general election season (although they are that). They also represent a genuine debate in the halls of power in both Washington, DC and in Brussels and in various European capitals funding this war as to whether the massive amounts of money being spent by the West are yielding an adequate result. Russian President Vladimir Putin is banking on the fact that eventually, whether through changes in elected officials at the ballot box or alterations in public perception in the West or recalculations by domestic civil servants, it is gradually concluded that the war in Ukraine is unwinnable by the West and therefore the West decreases its funding for it.
I want to emphasise, so that everybody understands, what happens if the West reduces its financial support for Ukraine. Amazingly, there are no accurate figures for just how much the West has been contributing to Ukraine through programmes of military and civilian assistance but the United States has contributed at least US$65 billion and it seems that the United Kingdom and the European Union and its member states have contributed approximately the same amount or slightly less between them. Now to put this in perspective, the GDP of Ukraine in 2022 has been estimated as US$160 billion or thereabouts. Therefore the amount of funding the West is paying into Ukraine is a substantial proportion of Ukraine’s economy, both wartime and civilian.
So if the West were to pull out all its funding tomorrow - which it won’t - then Ukraine’s economy would collapse as would its entire civilian and military effort. The Gryvna would collapse: its current stable value on world markets is the product of financial assistance from the US Treasury. The country’s banking system would collapse. Ukraine would have no bullets for her soldiers’ guns. There would be no money for basic medicines or for medical equipment for her injured troops. She would not be able to import essential goods. Damaged and destroyed military machinery could not be replaced. The government would collapse, as civil servants could not be paid. Ukraine would revert to an agrarian economy, and the Russians could, in a matter of months, quickly and easily re-occupy the entirety of Ukraine if that is what they wanted to do (and in the early weeks of the war, that did appear to be their intention).
This is why it is so important to keep persuading the West to keep funding levels for Ukraine at the very least at current levels and indeed to increase those levels of funding. The current levels of foreign expenditure on the war in Ukraine - which at the very least represent a very large proportion of Ukraine’s entire economy - are required just to keep this war in its current phase of stalemate which is the de facto position in early November 2023 as we observe that the front line from Bakhmut to Zaporizhzhia to Kherson has not changed in the last twelve months. Were funding to be reduced suddenly, the Ukrainian Armed Forces, for all their heroism and courage, would be routed because their logistical supplies would be cut off because logistics costs money and lots of it and in constant flow.
Sitting in one of Lviv’s popular bars or cafes on Halloween, with fun-loving youngsters wearing goofy makeup and smiling and laughing in the surprisingly mild autumnal weather, there seems little realisation of just how critical the financial situation is. US politics aside - it is always easy to blame imagined bogeymen such as Donald Trump who is over a year away from being elected US President if he is elected at all - and most of my US friends tell me that he is unlikely to be elected in the current febrile international environment but it cannot be excluded. However the fact is that there is an uncomfortable logic in Mr Putin’s tactics of just waiting it out. In any electoral season in the democratic cycle to which all western countries are subject, the question of the size and wisdom of different items of public budget expenditure is raised and there is a political incentive for politicians to talk about how, if they are elected, they will save taxpayers’ money. Talking about taking a chunk out of Ukraine aid budgets helped in the recent elections in Slovakia and it is now a hot topic in the United States. Mr Putin is calculating that because he does not have elections (or not real ones), he can maintain military expenditure more consistently into the future than can the West.
For the people living closer to the front line, with the Russian Armed Forces just a few kilometres away in many cases, the cruel financial realities of the situation, as well as the immediacy of the military threat as the massive Russian Armed Forces (it remains one of the world’s largest armies, with well over a million personnel on active duty and two million in reserve) are right on their doorstep, seem more obvious than in Lviv where the war appears more remote. Last night what appeared to be recon drones flew over Lviv; the first air raid sirens were heard in weeks or even months. Although many seemed to be panicking, I barely moved a muscle. I recalled being in Zaporizhzhia a couple of months ago, where such things take place virtually every hour and live fire ordnance falls upon the city daily. I didn’t flinch then so I figure I can take my chances in Lviv, hundreds of kilometres away from the actual fighting. Nevertheless is is important that the people of Lviv understand what those living in close proximity to the front line appreciate all to well: Ukraine is reliant in her entirety upon western financing to resist the Russian Armed Forces on her doorstep.
That is why it is so important for Ukraine to show that western funding and supplies are being used wisely. That is why public administration reform and public financial accounting is essential. Ukrainians at every level of government and private society must show the utmost transparency, honesty and integrity in the way they are spending this foreign money, which actually is far more important than the army of well-intentioned volunteers that have come to help but that are part of the process of accountability in international expenditures on Ukraine because we take our stories back to our home countries about how the war is progressing. If the West substantially cuts the money supplies, Mr Putin starts to win this war. And that, in the name of western values of democracy, freedom, rule of law and respect for the contemporary European polity, is something we cannot allow to happen. Hence if Ukraine is to sustain her so far heroic resistance to this war, she must engage in immediate and difficult cultural and political changes to show the utmost probity in everything she does. Otherwise she renders herself susceptible to the charge that she is wasting western money. And that is exactly the impression that Mr Putin wants the West to acquire.