Politics / May 2, 2024

The Ukraine Aid Package Heightens the Risk of Escalation 

The passage by Congress of the latest aid package to Ukraine was met with cheers, but there is ample reason for caution.

James Carden and Katrina vanden Heuvel
Mike Johnson at the Capitol
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.), is seen in the US Capitol after the House passed the foreign aid package on Saturday, April 20, 2024. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Last week’s passage of the Ukraine aid package by both the House and the Senate showed if nothing else that bipartisanship—at least on matters of foreign policy—remains alive and well in Washington, with leading Democratic progressives joining Republican hawks to pass the $61 billion package.

Mark Green, a former four-term Democratic congressman from Wisconsin, and current head of the Wilson Center, captured the current D.C. zeitgeist well, writing that “moments like the final passage of this assistance package show the world that, just as America never turns its back on key allies and important challenges, they should never fully count us out.”

Yet, despite the torrent of self-congratulation, concerning details surfaced soon after the House vote—not least what appears to be the Biden administration’s likely use of questionable, highly subjective intelligence to win over Republican Speaker Mike Johnson.

Current Issue

Cover of May 2024 Issue

Multiple mainstream media outlets report that the Biden administration arranged several multiple “high-level” intelligence briefings for the speaker. According to Politico’s Jonathan Martin, “It only took a higher level of intelligence briefings, granted to congressional leaders, for [Johnson] to pick up that old Cold War hymnal.” Martin noticed that, after having received briefings by the US Intelligence Community, several members of Congress, including Johson, House majority leader Steve Scalise, House foreign affairs committee chair Michael McCaul, and Representative Brian Fitzpatrick were all using the phrase “axis of evil” to refer to Russia, Iran, and China. As McCaul put it, “They’re all related, man…. To abandon Ukraine will only invite more aggression from Putin but also Chairman Xi in Taiwan. The ayatollah has already reared his ugly head.”

Where did this language come from, asked Martin?

The Nation Weekly

Fridays. A weekly digest of the best of our coverage.
By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You may unsubscribe or adjust your preferences at any time. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

“Spend an hour in the SCIF getting briefed,” Fitzpatrick shot back, referring to the secure facility used for classified briefings. “These are not isolated problems.”

After the vote, Johnson told Bloomberg, “I really do believe the intel and the briefings that we got…. I think Vladimir Putin would continue to march through Europe if he were allowed.”

If the US IC is putting forward cherry-picked conjecture (“Putin will march through Europe”) as fact, then don’t we once again have to confront the specter of politicized intelligence?

More worrying still, reporting on the aid package shows that the president and his staff have been serially misleading the public about what exactly US forces have been up to in Ukraine. Politico reported last week that “the administration secretly sent long-range [ATACMS] missiles to Ukraine for the first time in the war—and Kyiv has already used them twice to strike far behind Russian lines.” If true, this would contradict the president’s public assurances that (a) his administration would not send ATACMS to Ukraine, and (b) the US would not, due to the risks, countenance direct attacks on Russia.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung indicates that “scores of images recently leaked online, many with classified US military and intelligence assessments, illustrate how deeply the United States is involved in virtually every aspect of the war, with the exception of US boots on the ground.”

All of which raises the question: What else are they not telling us?

One important consideration—but one that remains notable for its absence in the coverage of the war—involves the risks of escalation. Professor Lyle Goldstein, who for 20 years taught at the Naval War College, has written about what he calls the “nuclear paradox”—that is, “if the US and NATO increase their military spending and conventional forces in Europe, the weakness of Russian conventional military forces could prompt Moscow to rely more heavily on its nuclear forces.”

Ignoring such risks, supporters of the aid package have instead cited it as a boon to the US economy. Yet, besides being morally grotesque, lining the pockets of defense industry behemoths like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dead Ukrainian and Russian soldiers will do little to further the president’s campaign pledge to “build back better.”

Still more, the animating idea behind the aid package— that it helps Ukraine live to fight another day—is deeply misguided. It would be hard to improve upon the formulation of George Beebe, former CIA head of Russia analysis and director of the Quincy Institute’s Grand Strategy Program, that, if Washington “were intentionally to design a formula for Ukraine’s destruction, it might look a lot like the aid package passed by Congress this week.” At this late date, better and more weapons and ordnance will not carry the day—and they will certainly not in the absence of a Ukrainian Army able to deploy them. Recent reporting by BBC Ukraine indicates that 650,000 military-age men have fled the country.

Too often missing from the conversation is the humanitarian toll the war has taken on Ukraine. Estimates show that between 2021 and 2023, Ukraine’s GDP has shrunk by nearly 30 percent, with millions out of work. The Economist predicts that the country will need $37 billion in external financing in 2024. In short, there has to be a better way than prolonging the suffering in order to ward off the phantom of never-ending Russian expansion—after all, Putin’s military tried and failed to cross the Dnieper and take Kiev only two years ago. The idea that Ukraine is but a first step in Putin’s plans to retake Eastern Europe, while popular, simply overestimates Russian strength while ignoring the root cause of the current conflict. Wiser heads (if they indeed exist) in Washington might use the opportunity provided by the Ukraine Recovery Conference this June in Berlin to reassess our priorities.

The answer to war is not more war. A negotiated end to the cruel conflict will require hard choices and painful trade-offs. But the sooner it is done, the sooner Ukraine’s reconstruction, reconciliation, and entry into Europe can and should begin.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

James Carden

James W. Carden is a contributing writer for foreign affairs at The Nation. He served as a policy adviser to the Special Representative for Intergovernmental Affairs and the Office of Russia Affairs at the US State Department.

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editorial director and publisher of The Nation, America’s leading source of progressive politics and culture. She served as editor of the magazine from 1995 to 2019.

More from The Nation

Why the Health of Tens of Millions Depends on the US-Mexico Tortilla War

Why the Health of Tens of Millions Depends on the US-Mexico Tortilla War Why the Health of Tens of Millions Depends on the US-Mexico Tortilla War

A trade dispute between Mexico City and Washington puts a spotlight on food sovereignty, GMOs, glyphosate, and the fate of Mexico’s iconic white-corn flatbread.

Alexander Zaitchik

Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas

Impeach Samuel Alito! Impeach Clarence Thomas! Impeach Samuel Alito! Impeach Clarence Thomas!

Corrupt insurrectionists have no place on the Supreme Court.

Jeet Heer

Gabrielius Landsbergis takes part in protest

Georgia Dreaming: Is Another Color Revolution About to Kick Off? Georgia Dreaming: Is Another Color Revolution About to Kick Off?

Ten years after the massive street protests that overthrew Ukraine’s president—and helped precipitate war with Russia—another former Soviet Republic teeters on the brink.

Vadim Nikitin

Tanya Haj-Hassan at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah, Gaza, on March 16, 2024.

What It’s Like on the Front Lines of Gaza’s Hospital Hell What It’s Like on the Front Lines of Gaza’s Hospital Hell

Talking to Dr. Tanya Haj-Hassan.

Mary Turfah

Since the 12th century, Kagbeni has been the “gateway” to the ancient Tibetan Buddhist Kingdom of Lo.

In Nepal’s Mustang Region, Climate “Loss and Damage” Puts the Survival of a Tibetan Community in Question In Nepal’s Mustang Region, Climate “Loss and Damage” Puts the Survival of a Tibetan Community in Question

What climate change looks and feels like in the Himalayas.

Feature / Wen Stephenson

East Jerusalem Armenian Quarter

The Dubious Land Deal Threatening East Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter  The Dubious Land Deal Threatening East Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter 

In April 2023, the community learned that an Israeli real estate company would soon construct a hotel on one-fourth of their land. “Progressively, we will lose everything.”

StudentNation / Joshua Yang