The writer is an FT contributing editor and writes the Chartbook newsletter
In the first 12 months of the war in Ukraine, the condemnation of Russia and rhetorical backing of Kyiv by the governments of Europe and the US has been intense and largely unanimous. But the economic numbers tell a different story. Judged against current potential and historical standards, the war looks like an exercise in calculated restraint.
This is not necessarily a sign of strategic failure. Though the moral force of war may seem to demand absolute commitment, total war is the dream of fascists or revolutionaries. For the rest of us, total war should be an absolute nightmare. War that does not envision the overthrowing of all order must involve the weighing of means and ends, costs and benefits, even in the face of death. And this is true for both combatants and their allies.
In 2022 Ukraine suffered a catastrophic contraction in its economy by about a third and yet it mounted a war effort to the tune of about 35 per cent of gross domestic product. This is an effort comparable to that in 20th-century world wars. It threatens to tumble Ukraine into inflationary disaster and leaves it heavily dependent on foreign aid. But even for Ukraine, as for 20th-century combatants, there are limits. To date, Ukraine is fighting the war mainly with volunteers. Forcible mass conscription is being held in reserve. Russian gas continues to flow to Europe through Ukrainian pipelines. These are the compromises you make, if you want to sustain the home front and good relations with European friends.
Russia is under strain, too. But despite western sanctions its economy contracted by only 2 per cent or so in 2022 and is expected to rebound this year. The military industrial complex is working around the clock, but for most Russians day-to-day life continues.
As for the wider world, China is being extremely cautious in its support for Russia. And though Europe and America are rhetorically all in, judged by historical standards their aid for Ukraine is very modest. The latest figures from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy tell a stark story.
Over the past 12 months, the US spent 0.21 per cent of GDP on military support for Ukraine. That is slightly less than it spent in an average year on in its ill-fated Afghanistan intervention. In Iraq the spend was three times larger. The Korean war cost the US 13 times as much. Lend-Lease aid for the British empire in the second world war ran to 15 times as much in proportional terms.
To see the Europeans doing more, you only need to go back to 1991. To support the American-led operation to oust Saddam Hussein from the oilfields of Kuwait, Germany gave three times as much as it is offering to Ukraine in bilateral aid.
A cynic would conclude that the west’s unspoken aim is not just to prevent a Russian victory, but to avoid a decisive Ukrainian success, for fear of escalation by Vladimir Putin’s regime. If this is true, it is jarringly at odds with US and European public rhetoric. To assume as much is not only distasteful but raises the question of whether we really credit western leaders with the strategic nous to deploy resources in such measured doses. The experience in Iraq and Afghanistan hardly suggests so. Which suggests another, sobering interpretation.
Western governments may sincerely support a Ukrainian victory, but they are failing to match means and ends. Reservations about specific weapons systems and the limits of western stockpiles play a part. But neither factor should inhibit money from flowing more freely. Rather than strategic objections or principled political opposition, it is complacency, a lack of imagination, small-minded budgetary thinking and procedural wrangling that are driving a wedge between intention and action.
For the west, this interpretation is even less flattering than the cynical view. Kyiv and its supporters prefer it, because it holds out hope that by their incessant lobbying they may ultimately persuade the west to live up to its promises. But what if that, too, is a delusion?
Is the gap between the west’s rhetoric and delivery on Ukraine not all too familiar? Respectable governments around the world espouse high-minded goals on global Covid-19 vaccination, sustainable development and Ukraine’s sovereignty, but they balk at supplying the means even if it involves tiny fractions of GDP and potentially huge rates of return. By contrast, the same governments amass mammoth amounts of money to rescue business interests and shield their own voters from shocks such as the 2008 financial crisis, Covid and the collateral damage of Putin’s invasion.
After one year of war what stands out is less western solidarity than this gap between declared intention and real delivery. The lack of decisive western support means that the balance on the battlefield and on Ukraine’s home front remains agonisingly precarious. Through their modest intervention, western powers and Europe in particular willingly forfeit any chance of decisively influencing events — so much so that one suspects that they do not believe in their ability to shape conflicts as complex and violent as that in Ukraine.
They also, however, lack the courage to admit as much. So they profess bold goals but fail to deliver means. The result is hypocrisy and self-inflicted impotence on a historic scale.