Members Only | March 14, 2022 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

No, the war in Ukraine hasn’t shown that America’s military is behind Russia’s

Mitch McConnell is wrong. The opposite is true.

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Republicans virtually always call for more defense spending. So it’s no surprise Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell demanded a 5 percent increase over inflation in the US defense budget a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. 

“Russia and China have prioritized military modernization literally for decades,” McConnell insisted. “We are actually behind.”

As usual, McConell is wrong. 

The Ukraine crisis has shown the opposite. 


If we are able to handle our biggest crisis since the end of the Cold War with barely a fraction of our defense budget, we should think seriously about what that enormous defense budget is actually contributing to our national security.


We are not behind. Our massive, endless, decades-long defense buildup has become disconnected from any realistic security need. 

We should use this crisis to reassess our priorities, to draw down defense spending and to ramp up investment in programs that will actually increase US and global security and welfare.

The US spends around $770 billion a year on the military. That’s five times as much as Russia’s $154 billion. Given that, it would be bizarre if the US were actually behind Russia in military readiness.

And sure enough, following Russia’s invasion, we know that McConnell’s February premise was completely wrong. 

We are not behind Russia. In fact, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed not strength, but stunning weakness — a “Potemkin military” according to Daniel Gross of the Centre for European Policy studies.

Russia has a modest-sized economy, and an authoritarian culture of corruption. As a result, its military spending has been far less substantial and far less effective than many Western experts (and Mitch McConnell) believed. 

A massive 40-mile long Russian convoy meant to lead the Ukraine invasion has bogged down in the mud with insufficient food and fuel — a logistical disaster. Russia’s supposedly superior air force has failed to win control of Ukrainian air space. Russian cyberattacks, much feared, have also mostly failed thanks to Ukrainian preparation and Western aid.


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Given Russia’s inability to subdue Ukraine, its threat to Europe appears vastly overrated. There seems little question that European forces, even without NATO or the US, could force Russia out of Ukraine if they wanted to fully commit to doing so. 

Europe, NATO and the US are not fully committing forces, or declaring war on Russia outright, though. That’s because no one wants to start World War III.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is arguably the most consequential threat to US security since the Cuban Missile Crisis, inasmuch as (unlike Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam) Russia has the ability to credibly attack the US. 

Yet the US is unwilling to deploy more than a fraction of its military capability because doing so could provoke a nuclear conflict. The administration is currently (and wisely) resisting calls for a no-fly zone, because we do not want a shooting war with Russia. 

As a large, powerful, nuclear-armed state bordered by water and allies, the US can really only be existentially threatened by another nuclear state. But we do not want to enter into conventional wars with nuclear states because escalation could lead to the destruction of the planet. 

Much of that $770 billion defense budget, therefore, is completely superfluous in virtually any conceivable security situation. 

Either we are not actually threatened, in which case we do not need all those weapons. Or we are actually threatened, in which case we don’t want to use all those weapons because we don’t want less conventional war to escalate to nuclear annihilation.

It’s true that our conventional forces can be deployed in smaller wars against non-nuclear states. But the Russian invasion also reminds us why we should be very cautious about entering into this kind of conflict. 

Russian aggression, and the heroic Ukrainian defense, has shown starkly the evils of imperialist violence, and the immorality of using superior military force to coerce other states and other peoples into doing one’s bidding. 

We should condemn Russia for this action. 


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But we should also take it to heart. 

If the Ukrainian invasion was wrong, so was the invasion of Iraq. And yes, so was the invasion of Afghanistan, even to supposedly avenge September 11. 

The drone war, undertaken in the name of US security, also looks very dicey — Russia shares a border with Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean their security concerns justify invasion. 

And there’s absolutely no excuse for the United States’ ongoing aid to Saudi Arabia in that country’s war of choice in Yemen.

US defense spending is superfluous for most of our existential security needs and is frequently immoral when used in conflicts that don’t threaten US existence. 

Still, there are other conflicts in which the US may want to try to deter potentially dangerous aggression — as in Ukraine. 

Isn’t our massive spending justified in this instance?

Again, though, we are not using all our resources in Ukraine. 

Instead, our response has been built on alliances. The US has coordinated with nations around the globe to impose draconian sanctions which are crushing Russia’s economy. 

The US has provided $1.2 billion in aid to Ukraine since January 2021 — a fraction of our military budget, though we’re continuing to ramp up. 

The EU has also donated hundreds of millions in aid as the conflict has escalated. NATO has sent additional troops to the Baltic states and Poland.

In short, the Russian invasion has underlined that in a difficult crisis, the US (a) has nonmilitary options and (b) has numerous allies. 


Climate change is a major national security threat since it will lead to migration, competition for resources and perhaps to the more major disease outbreaks like Covid. Investing in green technology and in reducing climate emissions would have many more security benefits than pouring more and more money into weapons that we know we’re never going to use.


Given the lack of credible threats to the US, the implausibility of conventional war against nuclear states, our non-military options, and our numerous allies, there is simply no reason that the US should be spending as much on its military as the next eight largest military defense budgets combined

If we are able to handle our biggest crisis since the end of the Cold War with barely a fraction of our defense budget, we should think seriously about what that enormous defense budget is actually contributing to our national security.

That question is especially pressing at a moment when we face serious non-military security challenges. 

Covid deaths in the US have reached 960,000. Globally the death total is over 6 million. 

As I’ve noted at the Editorial Board before, we could vaccinate the entire world for a fraction of our defense budget, saving many more US lives, and many more lives globally, than defense spending possibly could.

Climate change is a major national security threat since it will lead to migration, competition for resources and perhaps to the more major disease outbreaks like Covid

Investing in green technology and in reducing climate emissions would have many more security benefits than pouring more and more money into weapons that we know we’re never going to use.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to horrific suffering. Responding to it has been challenging and difficult. 

But, contra Mitch McConnell, those challenges have been more about diplomacy and when not to engage than they have been about the size of our military.  

That should make us consider whether ever more defense spending really helps us in a crisis, or whether there are other approaches that might do more to create a more secure and better world. 


Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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