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Elbridge Colby (left) and Bret Stephens. (Photo illustration by The Free Press; headshots via U.S. DOD and Getty Images)

Weekend Listening: Should America Continue to Aid Ukraine?

Two years on from Russia’s invasion, Elbridge Colby and Bret Stephens debate what U.S. policy should be.

Two years ago today, Russia invaded Ukraine.

The costs of the war have been unbelievably high. Half a million Ukrainian and Russian soldiers have either been killed or wounded. The U.S. alone has spent $113 billion supporting Ukraine. And an aid package that includes another $60 billion is stuck in Congress.

Part of the reason for that legislative limbo is public opinion here in America. Sentiment at home has shifted radically over the past two years. Back in 2022, 66 percent of Americans thought we needed to help Ukraine pursue a full victory even if it meant getting into a prolonged conflict. But several recent polls indicate that the majority of Americans now oppose additional funding to support Ukraine.

On the ground, Ukraine has suffered a series of setbacks of late. Last weekend, the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka fell to Russian forces. The Biden administration says that’s a direct consequence of congressional inaction.

On this episode of Honestly, a debate: Where is all of America’s aid to Ukraine going? Is the case for additional support for Ukraine really so clear cut? Even if you believe that it is, what has all of this sacrifice gotten Ukraine—and the U.S.? Can Ukraine even win this war? And is victory in Ukraine really as important to America as many politicians claim it is?

We invited two experts on to this week’s episode of Honestly to grapple with these questions:

Bret Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize–winning opinion columnist for The New York Times. His book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, foresaw much of today’s world. Bret worries that the world is on the precipice of World War III. Isolationism, he argues, only contributes to global instability.

Elbridge Colby is co-founder of The Marathon Initiative think tank. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development under President Trump, and he is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. Colby believes the United States must make difficult defense choices in an era of great power competition. Ukraine, he argues, should not be the top priority.

To listen to our conversation, click below. Or scroll down for an edited transcript. 

And once you’ve heard the arguments, tell us what you think in the comments: Would suspending aid to Ukraine be a historic mistake—or the strategically correct call? 

On what America’s role in Ukraine should be, and why:

Bret Stephens: Well, America’s role should be to assist the Ukrainians militarily, primarily. I think Europeans ought to do the bulk of economic assistance so that they can dictate the terms of the end of this war, regain the territories they have lost, not just since 2022 but since 2014, and demonstrate that democracy, which is what Ukraine is, in alliance with NATO and the United States, can defeat the new axis of autocracy and dictatorship that is defined by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China, and Khatami’s Iran. I fear that if we don’t pursue that strategy, if we don’t finish what we started, then what Russia is now doing in Ukraine is going to be a prelude to what it might be doing five or ten years down the road to other European states, including NATO member states, which we are treaty-bound to defend.

So despite the headline cost, it is cheap for us, not only because $100 billion isn’t what it used to be but because Ukraine is doing the hard fighting, defeating, decimating the Russian military so that we don’t have to face this kind of confrontation ourselves in a few years. The second aspect, I would add, is that if Russia is able to win in Ukraine, it will be a signal to other autocracies like China, like Iran, that America is weak, that it’s on the defensive, that it has lost its appetite to fight or even support its allies in the long term. And we are going to be confronting not just a problem in Donbas, but all along the frontiers between free societies and dictatorships.

Bari Weiss: Bridge, what do you say? Is $113 billion in American aid cheap, as Bret says? And would a Ukrainian defeat send that signal, as he suggests, to all of those other autocrats across the world?

Elbridge Colby: Well, it’s far from cheap. It’s actually very expensive. And I think that’s an important point to kind of center on. I mean, the U.S. role in Ukraine, first and foremost, should be defined in terms of our overall interests and our capability to address the global threats that we face. I think the really important thing here is the primacy of the China challenge and how far we are behind where we need to be. The nonpartisan Rand Corporation assessed that we are on a trajectory for basically defeat in a war over Taiwan.

Secondly, this is not just about will. This is about capability, and capability and will are interrelated. And we don’t have a military to fight concurrently in multiple theaters. And of course, the political situation in this country is saying people don’t want to add on massive additional defense spending. So I think Russia is very dangerous, actually. I think that Ukraine’s cause is basically just. I think it’s a democracy. It’s an imperfect democracy, but that’s not really my primary way of looking at it. I’m looking at how much is it in U.S. interests? I think Ukraine’s self-defense is in U.S. interests, but it’s a secondary, or distinctly secondary, interest compared to our primary interests in Asia. And I think the main thing that I would say is that we have to be judicious with what we ask of the American people and American voters, and we’ve already spent well over $100 billion, and that’s a great deal of money and a great deal of political will. So my view is we, like a prudent business, even if we’d like to keep all our franchises open, we have to adapt to the competitive market.

Look, I think it’s essentially a talking point that Ukraine will determine the fate of Taiwan. And the best thought experiment for this is, if it were true that the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine would determine the future of Taiwan, the number one state interested in Taiwan’s future is the People’s Republic of China. China would intervene directly in the Ukraine conflict because it deeply cares about the resolution of the Taiwan issue. Instead, China’s doing what I would expect them to do, which is trying to prolong the war, sap American resources and resolve in a long and potentially desultory conflict. It actually helps even explain why the Chinese haven’t helped the Russians with direct military aid. They’re trying to avoid paying the full cost. 

On why a growing number of Americans oppose more aid for Ukraine:

BS: I still think most Americans—I haven’t looked at the most recent polling, but at least as of a couple of months ago, as I recall—most Americans still support our position in Ukraine. Where it’s collapsing is in the Republican Party. Second reason is I think President Biden has been singularly uninspiring, not only in making the public case for defending Ukraine—no real public speeches, no sustained effort at using his bully pulpit to persuade Americans—but also a war strategy which amounts to trying to make sure that Ukraine doesn’t lose by giving them just enough to fight on, but not doing enough to ensure that they win and and win rapidly. But the third aspect is the collapse of courage and moral clarity, if you want to use that term, I use it advisedly, among a terrifying number of Republicans. You just saw Lindsey Graham, Lindsey Graham, okay, John McCain’s wingman, a guy who went again and again to Ukraine to talk about how important it was to have resolve there, to vote no in the Senate earlier this month when it came to providing that support for Ukraine. He’s doing it for one reason and one reason only, which is that he is cowering, like so many other Republicans, in the face of the demagogic position of their party leader, Donald Trump. And if Donald Trump returns to the White House, God forbid, the Republican internationalism that defined presidencies from Eisenhower through Nixon and Reagan and Bush and the second Bush, and it served us well, is going to collapse. And we’re going to have a Republican Party that is every bit as narrow-minded and ultimately as foolish as the Republican Party that we had going all the way back to the days of Alf Landon in the 1930s.

BW: Bridge, what do you say to the average, let’s say, MAGA voter, who says, why should America have sent a dollar to Ukraine?

EC: Well, I spent a lot of time trying to think about how to make the case for why Americans should be prepared to intervene, albeit more selectively, than, I think the kind of logic that Brett is talking about. So I think what I take is, you know, what’s in the Americans interests is, yes, you cannot be isolated from the world and hope for the best. Another sort of line of difference between Bret and me, and that I see with a lot of the sort of more traditional or quote unquote, kind of neoconservative Republicans in the Senate, for instance, is they seem to hope to kind of like browbeat or press this sentiment back into a corner and then sort of get the Republican voters to, say, support doubling defense spending. 

On the state of the war in Ukraine:

EC: It’s not totally impossible that the Ukrainians could again achieve significant advances. However, I think most serious analysis says that the conflict has largely reverted to the mean of what we’d expect, which is a large-scale, attritional conflict in which both sides have adapted. And so Ukrainian advantage, that they very commendably and heroically exploited in the first year or so of the war, have tended to be neutralized now. And so the Russians now have learned a lot of things, and unfortunately, have the advantages of mass. And if you read what the Ukrainians themselves are saying, this is actually the outcome. Stalemate might be not be the best outcome, but a good outcome because unfortunately, I think what the Russians are probably trying to do is gradually trick the Ukrainian forces and eventually break the will along the lines of what happened to the German army in 1918. So I think that is a possibility. There’s probably going to have to be a significant level of effort and possibly even increases in support to Ukraine, even to achieve that relatively moderate—think of the war in Korea—very unsatisfactory endpoint. I think that’s realistically—and a worse outcome is possible.

BS: Well, right now it’s not great because the Ukrainians are rationing their artillery. They haven’t gotten the military support that they depended on for their early victories. And yet they’re holding on. The front lines really haven’t changed that much. They have essentially regained control of their side of the Black Sea, which means that they can continue to ship grain out to the rest of the world. You know, if you asked the average American what the state of the Civil War was in the summer of 1864, they would say, it’s horrible. Look what just happened in the wilderness in Virginia and at Cold Harbor. And then the next thing you know, Sherman takes Atlanta, is marching toward the sea, toward Savannah. And the war is looking much better. Same thing with World War I in March of 1918. It looked like Germany was about to win. They effectively defeated the Russians. They were within a few miles of Paris. And then things turned around.

BW: What would victory look like? In other words, if Ukraine gives up some of its territory, if it gives up part of Crimea, if it gives up part of the Donbas, will that be defeat, or is that baked in at this point?

BS: It’s Ukraine dictating terms to Russia, not Russia dictating terms to Ukraine. And it is probably an end state where Ukraine regains a lot of its territory, maybe not all of it, and becomes a NATO member state or gets the kind of security guarantees, if not membership in NATO, then,, say, the United States offers to Israel or other major allies where we don’t put in troops, but we guarantee the supply of advanced weaponry, and we essentially ensure that that there’s no way in which their adversaries can capably defeat them. 

On the aid package stuck in Congress that includes $60 billion for Ukraine:

EC: Well, I think the problem with the bill is that its priorities are totally out of whack. I mean, as I’ve said, I support some reduced level of aid to Ukraine that’s genuinely consistent with the prioritization of the Pacific. I also support aid to Israel. Again, that doesn’t detract from our weapon stocks or ability to fund improvements in our lagging position in the Pacific. So instead of having $61 billion for Ukraine, we should be thinking more about $61 billion for the first island chain and so forth in the submarine industrial base. As Congressman Mike Gallagher said, nobody’s idea of a restrainer or anything called the levels of support for Taiwan and the Asia Pacific a joke. And I don’t think a lot of the concerns that we’ve touched on were really materially or seriously addressed in the bill, for instance, the idea of a strategy for ending it, how the Europeans would step up, etc. So you know exactly what the legislative package is a revision. I personally—I’m not an expert and I wouldn’t you know, I don’t think it’s necessary to be too strict about it, but I think it should reflect the actual priorities of the nation, which, by the way, are the stated priorities of the administration and the Republican administration and the Department of Defense, which is to put China first, which we’re not doing.

BS: All legislation in all of American history has been a sausage factory. Why are these things together? Because the administration calculated that pro-Israel Republicans are going to be loath not to support Israel, so it seemed like a politically good calculation. In an ideal world, would these things be separate? Yes, of course they would be. We would be giving Ukraine $60 billion in aid, but we would also be increasing, by a lot, our defense spending, our defense posture, in the Indo-Pacific. I mean, Bridge and I actually, this conversation that we’ve had, I suspect disguises large areas of agreement between us. I have been sounding the alarm about the state of our navy, our air force, our overall defense posture in our defense industry for probably, I don’t know, ten years, at least. But right now, the issue is Ukraine needs help. It is urgent. If we don’t help it now, we’re not necessarily going to have an opportunity to do it in the future. And this was the political formula that did, in the end, win the ascent of 70 U.S. senators. I wish there had been more Republicans among them. 

On Tucker Carlson’s interview of Vladimir Putin:

BS: Tucker Carlson is following in a long tradition of useful idiots or willing dupes who have gone to dictatorial countries and taken a look at a subway system or a skyscraper or some kind of Potemkin village and declared that they’ve seen the future and it’s so much better. You can go back to the journalism of Lincoln Steffens and his visits to the Soviet Union back in the 1920s. You can think of Walter Duranty, the infamous New York Times correspondent, who lied about what was happening in the Soviet Union, misreported what was happening in the Soviet Union during the mass starvation of the Ukrainian people, on and on to other useful dupes who have gone to North Korea and sung its praises. Tucker is a particularly revolting example because I know that he knows better. So what’s on display is an idiocy. It’s cynicism. And that is—it’s one for the record books.

EC: My view is fundamentally different, which is, I think these concerns about intervention, these concerns about the, you know, amount of spending and a greater cynicism and skepticism about the foreign policy establishment and the quote unquote, rules-based international order and the legacy system and so forth are very real and indeed growing. And so, Tucker, who I admire and like—I disagree with him on a number of things, but I think he is actually representing that and actually for myself. And to give an example of that, I asked his question to President Trump about why it was worth defending Montenegro when I was doing my book, because I think that is a very real question. Why exactly is it in Americans’ interest to risk war, nuclear war, to defend Baltic states? That is not an obvious question. And in a world in which it’s a more real prospect, it deserves a serious answer. 

You know, the criticism that I often get is, “Bridge, why are you giving aid and comfort to those who are saying we should reduce the defense budget?” My view is that I’m trying to come up with a policy that a Republican president or frankly, any president, but certainly a Republican president, could actually plausibly pursue, and that the American people could sensibly, as they actually exist, real existing Americans, could actually plausibly support. And I think that’s different. And that’s where someone like Tucker, you have to engage with. And the fact that Tucker has become so skeptical and cynical should be an alarm for people, even if you disagree with him, as I do on a wide number of things. 

Final arguments, and more on Tucker:

BW: I think the reason for his resonance is because we are living in a country that is full of people that are demoralizing and despairing, and that is—like he is a symptom of that. How do we change that? Because I think that that’s something, regardless of the strategy you think we should pursue in Ukraine or China, that you both would agree on, that living in a country where people don’t have a sense that it’s worth fighting for is not a good thing, if we are in a period, you know, that is the most dangerous since the ’70s or arguably since the 1930s. I’ll let each of you respond to that.

BS: Bridge talks about trying to create a middle path between two extremes. I listen to him, and I think that his middle path is, in fact, a case of falling between two stools because failing to support Ukraine and failing to help them at least rapidly bring the war to a positive conclusion as they see it is not going to help us husband our resources. It’s going to invite challenges on multiple fronts. By the way, we’ve been witnessing that in the Middle East as well as the United States, faces challenges from the southern end of the Red Sea to Iraq and Iran and Lebanon and elsewhere. And those are going to continue to multiply. Maybe it’s a sign of my age, but one of my reference points is the run-up to the Second World War. What happened in that? World War II didn’t start. World War II was a collection of regional conflicts that the Western powers effectively left untended, that rows and rows like water in separate cups until they finally overspilled and became a single global conflict.

One of the reasons I’m so afraid is that I’m watching that happen now because we are not sufficiently doing enough to drain the conflict in Ukraine. We’re not doing enough to drain the conflict in the Middle East by standing up to these dictatorships when the advantages are on our side. So what happened in World War II is we waited and waited until the advantages weren’t so clearly on our side, and we found ourselves in a genuinely mortal struggle for survival against evil dictatorships. I’m depressed to listen to Bridge, who’s obviously a very sharp and talented guy, express admiration for someone as demagogic as Tucker Carlson, whom I really see as the Father Coughlin of our day. I don’t know to how many people Tucker is speaking, but you put your finger on the problem there, which is that he is speaking to a society, to a country, or to at least a demographic that has lost its ability to think of the possibility of American success. And I think that very much resembles the America of the late 1970s, a similar period of inflation, malaise, and a certain kind of defeatism and despondency.

The best answer to that, the best cure for that, is not to feed the despair and despondency or the cynicism or the lavish praise for dictators who murder journalists of whom Tucker, by the way, is not. The right response to that is to persuade people in free societies that their prosperity and security is better assured by standing up to aggressive dictatorships while they can, while the costs are relatively low and manageable before they become unmanageable. And the simple case is this: Would you rather treat your cancer at stage one or stage four? Everyone would tell you stage one. This is what we need to do now. I’m afraid we’re in stage two, but the sooner we treat this cancer, the growing metastasizing of dictatorships, they’re aligned, the deepening of their alliances, the safer we’re going to be at home, the more prosperous our children’s future will be as well.

EC: I guess the fundamental thing I would say is I think we should look at how successful Bret has been in convincing the American people who appear to be clearly moving in the opposite direction. And so the question is, if we’re going to get super real, we can’t afford to invest in political strategies that don’t work. I think you’re right that Americans are feeling demoralized. And my basic view is, the elite has done very poorly over the last 25 years. I mean, I’m old enough to remember the 1990s. When President Clinton left office—and I was not a huge fan of his—but the budget was almost balanced. China was a blip on the horizon. Race relations were pretty good. We weren’t in any major wars. And you look 20 years later and things are pretty bad. The economy has been deindustrialized. Economic growth has slowed significantly. There’s essentially like an invasion coming into this country, several major wars that have not ended successfully. Massive debt and structural deficits where it’s not even clear that we’ll be able to pay the entitlements that people have been promised. This is a bad situation. So this explains a lot of the skepticism of people.

And of course, that I’m not even mentioning things like Russiagate and the 51, you know, agents, intelligence people and stuff that you could go on and on and on where people feel like, wait a minute. How much has this been working? I mean, if you were thinking in 1995 about the American foreign policy establishment, it’s actually not bad. If you were looking in 1973, people were very, very skeptical. So, I mean just to be super real, you have to engage with it and meet people at least part-way. And I think that’s the way that I look at what Tucker is saying. Again, I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, but I mean, he is, I think, probably the most influential figure on the right. And that is not just going to go away. You’re not just going to persuade people. And the proof is in the pudding that you haven’t. So we’re like, are we going to address the problem, or are we going to pretend like we’re just going to be able to turn away from the iceberg?

If we actually followed my strategy more in World War II because even though Japan bombed us, we had a Europe-first strategy because that was the decisive theater at the time. And we also made common cause with the evil empire, which Stalin’s empire was worse than Gorbachev’s or Andropov’s. I agree with a lot of the threat analysis, like take your cancer analogy. Well, I would say that Ukraine is like a skin, like a melanoma thing or a growth on your arm. It’s potentially dangerous but manageable. China’s like an acute heart disease. It hasn’t happened yet. But if it does you could die like right now. And that’s the way I look at it. And I’m saying—I’m trying to convince those people who are increasingly just totally tuning out the old foreign policy stuff, just totally tuning it out. Eric Schmitt, the senator from Missouri, pointed out that every senator who’s under 55, Republican, who was elected since 2017 or 2018 voted against the supplemental. That is where things are heading. So it’s either going to end up, I think, like what I’m talking about, or like closer to Rand Paul. And that’s the situation. I think the way to avoid ending up where Rand Paul would be is by taking their concerns seriously and trying at least to meet them part-way.

BS: The good news is, at least 70 senators still see it my way. And if I had a melanoma and heart disease, I would take them both seriously. 

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