June 24 will mark four months since Russia’s unprovoked, full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. The war rages on without an end in sight. Both sides have new objectives now, to which they are staunchly committed. At least for now, a negotiated settlement looks like a faraway concept for the onlookers who are concerned not only by the war itself, but also its extreme regional and global ripple effects.
The Russia-Ukraine war took a new turn in early April as the evidence of Russian war crimes started to mount. Moscow began to pull its troops out of the Kyiv oblast after suffering continuous defeats and deciding to refocus its war efforts on eastern and south-eastern Ukraine. But as the Russian troops retreated, they left behind devastated towns and villages. Images of Russian war crimes from the town of Bucha were particularly disturbing. Civilians had been tortured and murdered, buried in mass graves, or just left in the street in front of their homes. The Bucha killings turned out to be that turning point, more than a month into the war, that would halt the ongoing settlement negotiations in Ankara, Turkey, and force the West to double down on its military support for Ukraine.
In early May President Joe Biden signed into law the "Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022." The act allows the United States to provide Ukraine with billions of dollars in military aid, very quickly. The law received unanimous, bi-partisan support from Congress, which is a rarity in the United States nowadays. It also marked an important shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Russia and Ukraine.
“As Russia continues its illegal attack on Ukraine, resulting in the death of thousands of civilians, we must do everything we can to support the Ukrainian military and help Ukrainian society fight back,” said one senior lawmaker, Senator Tillis. “Authorization of a Lend-Lease agreement will allow the United States to provide additional equipment and resources to defend innocent civilians and show Putin the United States will not back down from this unprovoked invasion.”
When the U.S. Secretary of Defense Austin announced the lend-lease act, he said "We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine." These words ultimately marked the beginning of a new kind of war in Ukraine – a war of attrition. This is a grim, expensive, and deadly way to seek an end to a conflict. But after years of sticking to the politics of extreme appeasement with Russia, the West has finally learned that when it comes to fighting with Russia the rules are very primitive: whoever runs out of resources first, loses.
Since January 2021, the United States has invested more than $5.3 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. This includes more than $4.6 billion since Russia launched the brutal war against Ukraine on February 24. This week the United States announced that it would provide Ukraine with an additional $1 billion in military aid this summer.
And it’s not just the United States who has stepped up its military support for Ukraine. All NATO allies remain staunchly supportive, even Germany pledging its military support (although still dragging its feet at the moment). This week representatives from more than 50 nations pledged to get more military capabilities into the hands of Ukrainian forces battling Russian invaders – a commitment announced by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III during his visit to Brussels this week.
In contrast to the $5.3 billion and counting spent by the United States on Ukraine military aid in the past four months, since 2014, in the eight years leading-up to the war, the United States provided around $7.3 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. These were funds for training and equipment to help Ukraine preserve its territorial integrity, secure its borders, and improve interoperability with NATO. These numbers tell a story of a long-reluctant United States to confront Russia for its aggression against other countries. Although Moscow annexed Crimea and started a war in Donbas back in 2014, as it essentially got away with mere slap on the wrist through sanctions. The United States has been famously reluctant to sell arms to Ukraine and only began to do so, on a smaller scale, during President Trump’s last year of presidency.
Even at the outset of the February 2022 invasion one could hear conversations in Washington, rather frequently, how important it was not to punish Russia so much that it would destabilize or collapse the country. It seemed that the West was supporting Ukraine, the obvious victim of Russia, but only to a certain extent as it prioritized Russia’s stability over the Ukrainian lives. The Bucha killings, and the overall unavoidable hard facts about Russia’s war crimes changed that long-standing policy of American appeasement towards Russia. The overwhelming Western support for Ukraine is not just based on political decisions, but also evidence of what has become a rarity in the West – democracy in action. There is continued, popular, overwhelming demand from citizens of the NATO member countries, and not only, to help Ukraine defend itself and its people.
The US-Ukraine lend-lease terms and the overall volume of military aid currently pouring into Ukraine make some of the observers ask whether or not this has become a proxy-war between Russia and NATO. But to ask this question is to perpetuate Moscow’s propaganda about this war since before it ever began. As Putin explained, Ukraine was becoming “highly militarized” by the West, the government unable to make its own decisions, and Moscow aimed to “demilitarize” Ukraine through this invasion. Meanwhile the real picture was very different; NATO remained reluctant to offer membership to Ukraine, and as mentioned above, the United States kept refusing to sell arms to Ukraine although Russia was waging a deadly war in Donbas since 2014.
During the first 100 days of the war the devastation in numbers looks just as astonishing as the corresponding images of human suffering. Ukraine's parliamentary commission on human rights has reported that Russia's military has destroyed almost 38,000 residential buildings, nearly 1,900 educational facilities from kindergartens to grade schools to universities have been damaged, including 180 completely ruined. Other infrastructure losses include 300 cars and 50 rail bridges, 500 factories and about 500 damaged hospitals, according to Ukrainian officials. There have been at least 296 attacks on hospitals, ambulances, and medical workers.
According to President Zelensky, 60 to 100 Ukrainian soldiers are dying in combat every day, with about 500 more wounded.
After pulling out of central and western Ukraine, Russia resorted to scorched earth tactics in towns where it retained military advantage. The three-month siege in Mariupol at the Azovstal steel factory ended with a Russian takeover of the city that technically no longer exists. Over 21,000 civilians in Mariupol are dead. Sievierodonetsk, a city in the eastern region of Luhansk, has seen over 1,500 casualties, according to the mayor.
According to the latest VOA reporting, Russian officials have said that 1,351 soldiers had been killed and 3,825 wounded. However, Ukraine and Western observers say the real number is much higher: the Ukrainians believe that at least 30,000 Russian servicemen have died, and the British government estimated Russian losses at 15,000. It is also estimated that 40,000 Russian troops have been wounded.
Moscow’s actions in Ukraine have quickly amounted to a genocide. Putin’s decisions have made it impossible for the international community to look away. It has become impossible to expect the government of Ukraine to engage in settlement negotiations and offer concessions to the aggressor that has raped and murdered Ukraine’s civilians by the hundreds. Calling this a proxy war would dismiss Ukraine’s right to defend itself, and the rest of the world’s effort to simply help Ukraine maintain its independence and territorial integrity. Moscow is fighting hard to change the rules of the current global order and normalize the dangerous precedent of one country invading and annexing another in the 21st century.
* Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Her research is focused on geopolitics and security of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, Russian foreign policy, and the post-Soviet protracted conflicts.