Murphy's Law: The Costs of War in Ukraine


September 9, 2023: Ukraine has officially received nearly $100 billion in military aid. That number is inflated because many of the weapons and munitions were obsolete or, in the case of munitions, near or past their “use by” date. The older weapons were still useful against Russian forces. The Russians had few weapons that were as current or effective as the more modern weapons sent by NATO nations, and most of the older Western stuff was as good or better than what the Russians invaded the Ukraine with. Many of the donors are sending weapons they no longer use but had not disposed of. This includes older tanks, aircraft and ships that were put in storage just in case there was another conflict. Many of these reserve items have gone to Ukraine, including older German Leopard 1A5 tanks, IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) and MRAPs (armored trucks). These were a lifesaver for Ukrainian infantry, especially during the current offensive in southeastern Ukraine. Several NATO nations also had older IFVs to send to Ukraine.

Using standard accounting methods, these older tanks and other armored vehicles are worth very little but, to the Ukrainians, most of these vehicles are better and more effective than anything the Russians had at the start of the war. Russia lost most of its modern tanks in the first months of the war to the modern portable anti-tank weapons NATO supplied Ukraine with before and during the war. The tanks Russia still has available are sixty year-old T-55s and fifty year-old T-62s, which are generally ineffective against Western tanks but lethal to lighter armored vehicles. Russia has limited numbers of these older tanks, and had to do some refurbishment on many of them so that these vehicles could be operational in a combat zone. Russia is still building newT-72s, which are an upgraded model with better armor and fire control than the older T-72s that were lost in early 2022. Economic sanctions limit the number of new tanks the Russians can build and these new tanks lack some features because they required components imported from Western nations.

Russia is going into debt to pay for their war in Ukraine. Russia was economically weak before the war and never expected it to last this long or destroy so many Russian weapons. The Russian armed forces will come out of this war with far fewer heavy weapons than they had when they invaded. It will take five or ten years for Russia to replace the lost tanks, IFVs , artillery and artillery munitions. Current Russian strategy is to keep the war going a long time, on the assumption that Ukraine’s NATO suppliers will tire of providing Ukraine with weapons and munitions and be willing to force Ukraine to accept a peace deal that will include Russia remaining in control of some Ukrainian territory. There are already symptoms of that. For example, Ukraine recently replaced its Minister of Defense. The dismissed one was corrupt or tolerating corrupt practices that were diverting some of the money from the West to corrupt Ukrainian defense officials. The new Defense Minister was chosen based on proven ability to eliminate corruption and not tolerate efforts to revive the corrupt practices. Russia has far worse problems with corruption in its Defense Ministry, and among senior generals as well. Russia is less able to shut down this corruption because it involves Putin himself and his senior associates, so it goes straight down through civilian defense officials and senior officers all the way to supply sergeants. Ukraine inherited this culture of corruption after it became independent of Russia when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Ukraine looked west after 1991 and discovered that Western nations were less tolerant of Soviet-era corruption. The current Ukrainian president, Volodymir Zelensky, was elected in 2019 because he seemed able to reduce corruption. Zelensky did that but discovered that the corruption was more widespread and persistent than anyone realized. That meant Zelensky was presiding over a two front war. In addition to the Russians, he also had to deal with a seemingly endless supply of corrupt Ukrainian officials. Zelensky remains the best hope for reducing and curbing the corruption, especially when he reminds Ukrainian officials that a growing number of Western politicians see the persistent corruption in Ukraine as a reason to withdraw support and let Ukraine deal with the Russians on their own. Ukraine would have a difficult time on its own and might end up absorbed back into Russia. Western military leaders realize abandoning Ukraine is not a good option because it would not only risk Ukraine losing its independence, but would also provide Russia with many modern Western weapons. Russia could sell some of these to China and also determine how the Western weapons were built and borrow what technology they could.

The Ukraine War is full of risks and demonstrates to Western supporters how complex the situation in Ukraine and Russia is. Supporting Ukraine is not only expensive, but also more difficult than expected because of the far greater corruption found in nations that were once part of the Soviet Union. East European nations that were once subservient to Russia before 1989, joined NATO as soon as they could and warned the West that Russia was still a threat and it took the Russian invasion of Ukraine to make that clear. This will end up costing Western nations over $100 billion in military and economic aid, but will also make it clear that the East European NATO nations, especially Poland, were correct in their assessment of the Russian threat. Poland acted on its beliefs and sent Ukraine billions of dollars’ worth of weapons while also spending even more to purchase Western replacements for the weapons sent to Ukraine. Other East European NATO nations also sent most of their Soviet-era weapons and munitions to Ukraine. These nations were already in the process of replacing these weapons with modern Western ones. This was one of the conditions of joining NATO and the Ukraine War speeded up this process. East European warnings that Russia was still a threat are now accepted by all NATO nations and that makes it easier for these democracies to justify the expense of upgrading the weapons and equipment their troops use. This turned out to be an expensive lesson, costing billions of dollars in expenses these nations hoped to avoid.




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