04.07.23 Review

Alliance or union? The West is spending significantly less on assistance to Kyiv than it did on its allies in previous military conflicts

In one week from now, a NATO summit will begin in Vilnius, which is expected to determine a new stage in the alliance’s strategy to support Ukraine and contain the threat of Russia. There is a degree of suspense over the political formula which will define the future relationship between the alliance and Ukraine, as both sides have found themselves at a political impasse. However, perhaps an even more important question is the scale of actual assistance to Ukraine. To date it has not been as significant as (and indeed considerably less than) the aid provided by Western countries to their allies in past wars. For example, Germany's contribution to the liberation of Kuwait was three times greater than the assistance they have provided to Ukraine. Therefore, more significant than the formula for accession to NATO is the transition of Western countries to de facto allied relations with Ukraine, which implies a reassessment of the assistance strategy. As it stands it allows Ukraine to avoid losing the war, but it is still insufficient to achieve a breakthrough and pose a credible threat to Russia in the protracted conflict.

Despite repeated assurances from Western leaders of unconditional support for Ukraine, the actual volume of assistance that Kyiv has received since the start of Russia's invasion remains relatively small, especially when compared to the expenditures of the West in past major wars and armed conflicts. Moreover, even the existing level of support for Ukraine is provided by a small number of countries, primarily the United States and Eastern European states. These are the findings of a study published on the VoxUkraine analytical platform by Christoph Trebesch, who has traced aid commitments to Ukraine based on open source information from January 24, 2022 (when several NATO countries put their forces on high alert) to January 15, 2023, thereby clarifying the picture presented by previous databases.

Unsurprisingly, the largest donors to Ukraine are the United States (€73.18 billion, accounting for over half of all Western commitments) and EU countries (€55.12 billion). Of the total assistance allotted by Europe, €29.92 billion was allocated through the European Commission and the European Council, while an additional €20.1 billion was provided bilaterally. However, the level of direct support varies significantly among European countries. This becomes particularly clear when this assistance is measured not in absolute terms, but as a percentage of the respective countries' GDP. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria have provided the greatest assistance to Ukraine, with Estonia and Latvia allocating over 1% of their GDP for these purposes. In contrast, wealthy Western European countries such as Spain and Italy have made bilateral aid commitments to Ukraine amounting to only 0.06% and 0.03% of their GDP, respectively. The United States ranks in the top five in terms of assistance to Ukraine as a percentage of GDP.

If we add the costs of accommodating Ukrainian refugees to these calculations, the gap between Eastern and Western European countries becomes even more noticeable. In such calculations, Poland takes the lead (allocating over 2% of its GDP to aid Ukraine), followed by Estonia, Latvia, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania. Meanwhile, economically developed countries like Spain, Italy, and France rank low in this regard.

Even the assistance that has been pledged to Ukraine is being delivered with delays. The two largest donors, the EU and the US, have delivered less than half of what was promised. A good example when it comes to fulfilling commitments is Berlin, which has provided Kyiv with exactly the amount of support it promised. Irregularity in the delivery of aid is also a problem: Western commitments to Ukraine sharply increased immediately after the full-scale Russian invasion but dwindled to nearly zero by summer and only noticeably increased again at the end of last year.

The study’s calculations show that in past wars and major armed conflicts, the West spent much more than it is currently. For example, during World War II, the US sent over 25,000 tanks and more than 15,000 aircraft to Great Britain alone, while the USSR and France received thousands of units of heavy weaponry through the American lend-lease program. By comparison, in 2022, Ukraine received less than 500 tanks and howitzers from the US, as well as fewer than 100 multiple rocket launch systems. Even during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), Western countries supplied more armaments to the Republican side than it is currently providing Ukraine.

Altogether, during World War II, the United States provided aid to the United Kingdom amounting to 2.6% of its annual GDP, and the Soviet Union at 1.2% of GDP. This is 10 times the amount of assistance Ukraine received from the US or the United Kingdom in 2022 (0.21% and 0.18% of GDP, respectively). The US military expenditures in wars such as the Korean War (1950–1953), Vietnam War (1965–1975), and Iraq War (2003–2010) also significantly exceeded the military assistance provided to Ukraine. Only Washington's annual expenditure in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2010 is comparable to its commitments to Kyiv.

Other Western countries also spent more during past wars. For example, during the Gulf War in 1990–1991, Japan supported Kuwait to the tune of 1.5 trillion yen, equivalent to $11.5 billion at that time, Germany provided support worth 16.9 billion German marks ($10.5 billion), and South Korea contributed at least $355 million. Thus, Germany allocated 0.55% of its GDP to Kuwait in 1991, while Ukraine received 0.17% of GDP in 2022. For Japan and South Korea, which provided limited bilateral assistance to Ukraine, this gap was even larger.

In the conditions of a war of attrition, asymmetry in the scales of the parties involved, and the mobilisation of Russian industry, which is increasingly being oriented towards the war footing, such a level of assistance allows Kyiv to avoid defeat and even pose a threat to Russia. However, it does not enable a decisive breakthrough in the war, one that would demonstrate to Moscow the high probability that it will lose its occupied territories and make the scenario of a protracted conflict truly dangerous for the Kremlin.