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Has military support for Ukraine from the U.S. and NATO peaked?


The Biden administration wants to give Ukraine drones, which can be armed with Hellfire missiles. If Congress approves, that would be a significant upgrade from the smaller, shorter-range drones Ukraine already has in its arsenal. And it's on top of President Biden's pledge earlier this week to ship advanced rocket systems to Ukraine. But has military support for Ukraine from the U.S. and NATO peaked? Andrew Exum is a former senior Pentagon official and contributor to The Atlantic. He believes the U.S. spending on Ukraine may have hit a high water mark. He joins us this morning. Thanks for being here.

ANDREW EXUM: Yeah, happy to be here.

MARTIN: So why do you think the tolerance for this level of spending is wearing thin when it comes to the U.S. and NATO's support for Ukraine?

EXUM: Well, I think if we take a step back and we marvel at what we've done already - I mean, bear in mind, the last time I served in government, Russia invaded Syria or came to the aid of the Assad regime. And between 2015 and 2017, we went to every available means not to kill any Russians over Syria, which is, of course, where we were fighting the Islamic State at the time. Fast forward seven years later, we are - been shoveling some of our most advanced weapons systems, anti-tank weapons systems, anti-aircraft weapons systems, into Ukraine. It's really remarkable not just what the United States has done, but also what the European partners have done.

MARTIN: They clearly see the stakes as different, though. I mean, the war in Syria is egregious beyond all measure when it comes to the civilian casualties. But the U.S. and NATO's see an existential threat when it comes to...

EXUM: That's right.

MARTIN: ...Russia's incursion into Ukraine.

EXUM: Yeah, that's right. That's right. But it's not just the fact that we've been sending all these weapons to the Ukrainians. We've been almost bragging about them. And when you look at the European partners, I mean, I think they've almost been shamed by their national publics into sending more in the case of Germany. So it's really been remarkable what we've done so far. The war, obviously, is reaching a bit of a stalemate in the east. And both sides are finding, you know, heavy sledding at the moment. I think, from the perspective of a lot of Western policymakers, you're starting to see some fissures in terms of how far not only the United States, but especially the European partners should go in terms of furthering this conflict, because the economic pain is really starting to hit both in the United States but also in Europe.

MARTIN: Yeah. Say more about that. Where are we seeing it?

EXUM: Well, I mean, first off, in the eurozone, inflation is up to 8.1% just this year alone. And the United States is at a four-decade high. The war in Ukraine didn't cause that. That inflation has nothing to do with, you know, China's zero-COVID policy. It has nothing to do with the efficiency of our ports on the West Coast. But it's absolutely contributing to it, right? It's an accelerant. Now, here in the United States, we've still got a lot of good things going on. And President Biden highlighted some of these in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week. We've got low unemployment, hot labor market, rising wages. That's great. In Europe, they don't necessarily have that. And your leading economists predict a global recession early next year. But when I travel around the country talking to business leaders, they worry that it might come even sooner than that. So that's what's weighing on American policymakers' minds. Imagine what's weighing on European policymakers' minds, where they've also got to face energy shortages caused by the conflict in Ukraine.

MARTIN: So you worked at the Pentagon. You've worked in administrations before. How do you change messaging on this? Because, you know, you start out by saying, this is an existential threat - we must arm Ukraine in order to prevent future Russian aggression around Europe, let alone Ukraine's sovereignty. And then you say, just kidding, it's too much for us, we can't do it anymore?

EXUM: Yeah. No. I think that U.S. support for Ukraine is absolutely going to continue. But the type of support that Ukraine really needs now to win back territory, that's going to be a different type of support that we can provide. So first off, you know, declare victory. The United States and its Western partners and, primarily - let's be honest here - the Ukrainians have denied Russia their primary military objectives in this campaign. They've denied Russia control over Ukraine. But Russia's still been able to take over 20% of the country. And Russia has been able to achieve some of its secondary objectives. For the Ukrainians, they're not going to be able to settle for anything other than a return to where the borders were on 23 February. That's where they've got to settle for. From the U.S. perspective, it's just going to be a lot tougher to continue to arm the Ukrainians to get to those borders.

MARTIN: You think this ends in a negotiated settlement, even if the Ukrainians don't want it?

EXUM: I think this war has gone on for eight years and it's going to go on for many more years, but in a much more stalemated, slow process.

MARTIN: Referencing the starting point of 2014 with that Russian aggression. Andrew Exum, former Army officer, former senior Pentagon official, now a contributing writer for The Atlantic. We appreciate you. Thank you.

EXUM: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.