The Big Question about Ukraine

As 2022 comes to an end, consumers of the news have one question on their minds as daily requests for more military aid arrive from Ukraine.

How much has the American government given to Ukraine already?

No, this isn't going to be a column about The Big Question: should we be on Ukraine's side in this war or not?  Should we be on Russia's, or should we be neutral?  That's a different question, one that should have been a campaign issue in the mismanaged election of 2022.  (But it wasn't.  Hmm.  Wonder why.)

The question on our minds, as we seem to give millions more every week, one way or another, is just this: how much money (or in the case of goods and services, like warplanes and missiles and ammo and training) have we put in President Zelensky's hands already this year?

Various sources differ, but the number appears to be somewhere between $50 and $100 billion so far.

Not how much has Mr. Zelensky had to spend...but after winding its way through the four-million-plus-strong federal workforce, how much has Ukraine netted from us?

Now, that's not counting what we've done for Ukraine in other ways, such as issuing sanctions, which one could argue have hurt American companies more than they've hurt Russia.  (Remember, when you don't import much from a country, the only significant effect of sanctions is stopping your own exporters from selling to it.  Lots of American businesses have lost countless billions in sales this year by cutting loose all their Russian customers.)

The number that is thrown out at the media each time Congress or the White House proposes another package for Ukraine is the amount it will cost the United States government.  The CFR recently estimated that we have allocated $23 billion on armaments alone this year, so far, not counting the $45 billion in the year-end $1.7-trillion "omnibus" spend-a-thon.

That's so much money that we normal American civilians can't calculate it (and the odds are, the politicians in Washington, D.C. can't, either).

But there's a different question to ask, one that we need to ask much more, in this context.

Is this an efficient means of accomplishing our goal, or could it be done more cheaply?

As December comes to a close, many Americans take out our checkbooks and write year-end donations to the charities we want to support.  How much is left, after paying the bills, buying the presents, funding the projects of the year?

Before we write those checks, what do we do?  We go online and research the charities.  There are sources available today, sources that didn't exist 50 or 100 years ago (perhaps they weren't needed so badly then, in a more honest, more honorable age), to help us understand how much a charity spends on fundraising services, on staff, on offices. 

Does the charity have three floors of a Manhattan skyscraper, or does it have a humble building in a small Midwestern town?  Does it spend tens of millions on staff, or just hundreds of thousands, or perhaps nothing, being an all-volunteer organization?  We can find out whether 90 cents of every dollar received goes to administration, or 90 cents of every dollar goes to the intended beneficiaries, or if it's somewhere in between. 

It varies widely, and the answer determines who gets those contributions from us, today and every day.

So our question today, as the citizens being asked (okay, being told) to fund these gifts to Ukraine, has to be related.  With all these billions, are we really getting our bang for the buck?

It's a war, they tell us.  We can't be quite that exact.

But there are things we know, from other discussions about the funding of our own war machine over the generations.  Some systems are better against some enemies than against others.  Some humanitarian assistance is more effective in some environments than others.  Some weapons are costlier; some make more money for one congressional district than another, more for one state than another.  Unlike a tank, which we hope will last a long time, a bomb just has to blow up once.  Does it really have to cost as much as it does? 

These are the questions we used to have time to ask.

Those of us old enough to remember the news coverage of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s will remember debates on the funding of every model from sidearms to fighter jets, from K-rations to MASH unit tents.  How much of this have we heard or seen from Washington regarding our funding of the Russo-Ukrainian War?

Oddly enough — or perhaps not so oddly — we have seen these detailed public analyses diminish over the years, just as the bureaucratic state has mushroomed.  Every federal department and agency has grown in power and reach, far beyond its original charter.  The oversight provided by Congress is largely limited to budgetary expenditures.  Legislators barely look at a balance sheet; we can hardly expect them to study the Federal Register to see if the agencies' regulations are in line with the purpose Congress had in establishing these agencies in the first place.

And in this same era, we have seen hints — sometimes more than hints, glaring stacks of evidence — that politicians and bureaucrats have conflicts of interest, possibly outright bribery, sometimes even undeniable treason, as a result of the financial temptations that such unlimited, unwatched power affords.  (See Clinton Cash and Profiles in Corruption by Peter Schweizer, Culture of Corruption by Michelle Malkin, and so many other such exposés over the years.

Whom do we blame, for this or for any such waste, no matter whether the charity is a local soup kitchen, a national nonprofit, or even a foreign country?  Do we blame the recipient of the money or the donor?  Should we perhaps blame an irresponsible news media that has little interest in asking the questions?

Let's think of it this way.  If it costs a charity 70 percent of a $100,000 donation to net $30,000 to spend, that's $30,000 the charity didn't have yesterday.  It will be happy to have the money, for wheelchairs or soup, or for research labs or counseling centers.  We can't blame it; we should blame ourselves for not selecting more frugal charities to donate to.

Similarly, we can't entirely blame Volodymyr Zelensky if we keep pouring cash into his coffers, possibly without the perfect oversight, possibly without targeting the right projects with a sharp eye to administrative costs.  That oversight was our job, as the writer of the checks; it was the job of a Congress that has been abdicating this responsibility for generations.

We hear rumors — reports of wild European shopping trips, of politicians' wives traveling with bags of money, of poor people being elected to office and soon owning multiple mansions.  We see blatant bribe money being spent on cocaine and hookers.  How does it happen?

Shouldn't Congress and the news media be telling us?

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international transportation professional.  A onetime Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman, he has been writing a regular column for Illinois Review since 2009.  His book on vote fraud (The Tales of Little Pavel) and his political satires on the current administration (Evening Soup with Basement Joe, Volumes I and II) are available on Amazon.

Image: The Presidential Administration of Ukraine via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0.

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