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Military Aid to Ukraine: A Necessity Beyond Negotiated Settlements

Despite Congressional disputes and growing disenchantment with supporting Ukraine, military aid remains crucial for Kyiv’s defense against Russian aggression.

M1 Abrams Tank like in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Summary: Despite Congressional disputes and growing disenchantment with supporting Ukraine, military aid remains crucial for Kyiv’s defense against Russian aggression. A $60 billion aid bill has stalled in the House, reflecting a contentious debate over the U.S. role in the conflict. Historical precedents, like the Korean War, demonstrate that military assistance is vital during peace negotiations and beyond to ensure a country’s security and sovereignty. The ongoing need for U.S. military aid to Ukraine underscores the importance of continued support, irrespective of peace talks, to uphold Ukraine’s independence and deter further aggression.

Congressional Stalemates and the Future of Military Assistance to Ukraine

Military assistance to Ukraine has been strangled in recent months amid Congressional disputes over border security and growing political and public disenchantment with supporting the beleaguered Kyiv. Public officials and commentators alike have increasingly rallied around a negotiated settlement as a way to end a war of attrition with Russia, where Ukraine is increasingly looking on the backfoot. At the moment, a military aid bill which would include $60 billion earmarked for Ukraine has passed the Senate, but lays gathering dust in the House at the behest as Speaker Mike Johnson appears uninterested in holding a vote.

Peace negotiations very well could be the only realistic path to end the Russo-Ukrainian War, as odious as it might be for Ukraine to concede any of its territory or people to an aggressor. But even if a negotiated settlement is the most viable option, U.S. military aid to Ukraine will remain urgent. In essence, the question of whether to provide aid is divorced from the debate over what direction the U.S. should push Kyiv towards.

U.S. military aid is essential even if American lawmakers were to increasingly rally around a negotiated peace. Continued military aid will almost certainly be necessary in the years following an armistice. The only scenario where the U.S. no longer gives Kyiv military assistance is when Americans decide to have no stake in the conflict, regardless of the outcome. For better or for worse, as soon as the United States government identified that the continued independent sovereignty of Ukraine was essential to national interests, it set itself on a path where U.S. military aid must continue to flow for the foreseeable future. In Ukraine, even a negotiated peace will be built on the expended shells paid for by American funds.

One of the most pertinent historical examples of the importance of military aid amidst peace talks comes from the Korean War. Like Ukraine, the U.S. was intimately involved in supporting the military forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK). American military involvement in Korea was far more expansive than its present investment in Ukraine—36,000 Americans soldiers would die in Korea from 1950 to 1953, and North Korea would have almost certainly taken over the South in the initial months of the war without direct American intervention. Military aid to the ROK Armed Forces was also essential to U.S. interests even as negotiations opened with North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union.

Armistice negotiations in the Korean War lasted two years, from the very first meeting in the city of Kaesong in July 1951 its official signing in Panmunjom on July 27, 1953. The negotiated settlement of the Korean War was extremely difficult: the myriad parties not only had to settle exact territorial demarcations, but also issues of prisoner of war repatriation, demilitarization, troop levels, and refugees. Peace talks were not siloed away from the war but intimately connected to it. Negotiators used the proceedings to spy on one another, and offensives and counteroffensives on the frontline directly impacted the bargaining process.

There were multiple points where armistice negotiations nearly failed, with talks starting and stopping throughout the 1951-53 period, the result of either deep distrust or sometimes even active sabotage by certain parties to blow up a deal. Throughout this time, the U.S. military continued to supply, train, and reinforce the ROK military. South Korea at the time was far from an ideal ally. But military aid was essential, because American officials fully recognized that a well-armed and prepared South Korean military was necessary even while negotiations were going on: first to support the front, and second to offer security assurances that could convince the ROK to accept the terms of the armistices. Peace talks meant that all parties were talking while fighting.

In the years following the armistice, the U.S. continued to provide massive amounts of aid to the ROK military to compensate for the withdrawal of its own troops from the peninsula. War could be renewed at any moment, and U.S. military aid was tailored to both support South Korea’s defense capabilities and carefully dissuade its partner from trying to attack the North on its own. From 1953 to 1961, the U.S. provided $1.785 billion in military assistance to Seoul when South Korea’s total military expenditures were around $1.997 billion. Negotiated peace did not signify the end to U.S. military aid—it necessitated long-term levels of it.

Some opponents of resumed American aid to Ukraine have attempted to frame their claims as both cost-saving and supporting a more immediate peace. Commentary advocating for a diplomatic solution to the conflict frequently point to the expense of military assistance as an argument for why peace talks are the only solution to solve the stalemate between Ukraine and Russia. When Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) spoke at the Munich Security Conference, he dismissed the feasibility that more aid would allow Ukraine to win, and instead called for a “negotiated peace” as the “reasonable” outcome. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has publicly stated he would attempt to stop any further aid without immigration reform, and similarly argued that the “only way this war ends is in a negotiated settlement.” The expense of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine and the diplomatic solutions which the Biden administration can push Kyiv towards are the source of reasonable concerns, especially as the American public increasingly grows unhappy with the expense of continued aid.

But a false equivalence exists between a negotiated peace and a speedier end to U.S. military aid. In Korea, which also involved a war that had ground to a bloody stalemate, armistice negotiations took almost two years, during which the battles of the war were critical to the course of those talks. Like in Korea, any negotiated peace in Ukraine will almost certainly be brittle, meriting continued U.S. involvement and interest in Ukrainian military affairs. Any immediate stoppage of aid could be catastrophic, even during and after peace talks. For better or for worse, negotiated peace or not, the U.S. government must make the case for long-term military support.

Of course, there is a scenario in which Ukraine no longer asks the U.S. for military aid—if Russia wins. If American lawmakers decide that the fate of Ukrainian sovereignty is not in the realm of U.S. interests, they will have found a framework in which aid bills are no longer necessary.

The war in Ukraine may very well end around a table, a negotiated deal signed by warring parties. But in the months and years that might follow a decision to begin peace talks, Ukrainian soldiers will continue to rely on the bullets and tanks provided by American arsenals. Aid to Ukraine is, at their heart, not the province of differing opinions about the best solution to the war; it is a question of whether Ukraine will survive as a sovereign state.

About the Author 

Syrus Jin is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at the University of Chicago. He researches the history of military assistance, U.S.-East Asian relations, and the Cold War.

Written By

Syrus Jin is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago.