Context is everything. In the aftermath of embarrassing photographs showing US soldiers providing hands-on training to members of the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, a former independent militia drawn from the ranks of Ukraine’s right-wing supporters of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist who fought alongside Nazi Germany during the Second World War, the US Congress, in June 2015, passed legislation that banned the training of Azov members by the US military, as well as any transfer of US weapons to Azov control.
Within in a year, however, the Pentagon had lobbied the US Congress to remove Conyers’ amendment from the 2016 budget, claiming that the amendment was unnecessary in light of the existing Leahy Law, which prohibited funding to groups that have
“committed a gross violation of human rights.” The problem, however, was that the US Congress had never formally designated the Azov Battalion as a group covered by the provisions of the Leahy Law. Accordingly, the US military was once again given the green light to train and equip Ukraine’s neo-Nazi military formations. Congress eventually woke up to the Pentagon’s end-around, and in 2018 reinserted the language of the 2015 Conyers amendment into the defense budget, stipulating that “none of the funds made available by this act may be used to provide arms, training or other assistance to the Azov Battalion.”
The Biden administration, together with the US Congress, seems content to ignore the restrictions imposed in 2018 – none of the current funds being allocated to Ukraine are hampered by any such restrictions. Underwriting the training, equipping, and sustainment of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi element is de rigueur for American politicians, it seems.
A Department of Defense plaque is seen outside the Pentagon in Washington, DC. © MANDEL NGAN / AFP
This would not be the case, however, if the mandate of SIGAR were expanded, as Senator Paul is demanding, to include the current Ukraine defense programs. The spectacle of the US Congress being confronted with an official report detailing how it has facilitated the use of US taxpayer dollars to underwrite neo-Nazi militancy in Ukraine, however, would not make for comfortable reading. Nor would the fact that this money was being handed over to Ukraine’s neo-Nazi element with little or no checks. Without an oversight group such as SIGAR, US taxpayers will have absolutely no idea how their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent.
This is why Senator Paul’s moment of compelled Senate-level deliberation will ultimately fail. Eager to be seen defending a supposedly free and democratic Ukraine, his fellow senators seem to have fallen victim to the same self-blinding urgency as their brethren in the House. But this is a view of Ukraine that exists only in the minds of lawmakers who once knew that using US taxpayer money to underwrite Ukrainian neo-Nazis was fundamentally wrong, but who have since fallen victim to politicized Russophobia. A SIGAR empowered to audit US taxpayer dollars spent in Ukraine would be politically inconvenient, and thus will never be allowed to exist.
While it seems unthinkable that the members of Congress could forget the lessons of Afghanistan so quickly when it comes to providing billions of dollars of poorly managed money to a deeply corrupt political regime in Ukraine, the reality is that the US has a history of providing military assistance to corrupt causes, all of which have failed to achieve their desired objectives.
This was not always the case. In March 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped put meaning behind the phrase ‘the arsenal of democracy’ when describing the mobilization of American industry for the purpose of arming allies to defeat fascism. Under the so-called ‘Lend-Lease Act’, the US provided billions of dollars of military aid to the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and China to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The program’s impact was undeniable, and it played a critical role in enabling America’s wartime allies to survive and ultimately defeat the threat posed by a common foe.
However, since the end of the Second World War, the US has embarked on a series of misadventures where the ‘arsenal of democracy’ was engaged to support causes which, despite the infusion of American money and arms, ultimately failed. From 1961 until the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Washington spent more than $141 billion supporting the South Vietnamese government in its war against communism, including tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment supplied as part of the so-called ‘Vietnamization’ program, which was designed to give the South Vietnamese military the ability to fight and win without direct US military assistance. When Saigon fell, it is estimated that North Vietnam captured some $5 billion in US military equipment, nearly half of which the North Vietnamese army was able to integrate into its force structure.
In the aftermath of the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the US spent some $25 billion rebuilding an Iraqi military capable of standing on its own two feet. And yet, less than three years after the US withdrew its combat forces from Iraq, the Iraqi army, in the summer of 2014, collapsed against the forces of the Islamic State, abandoning not only the city of Mosul and vast swaths of territory to the Islamist movement, but also billions of dollars of US military equipment, including heavy tanks and artillery.
Similarly, between 2005 and 2021, the Afghan military received more than $18 billion worth of weapons from the US ‘arsenal of democracy’; but when the Afghan government collapsed in August 2021, more than $7 billion worth of advanced US military equipment fell into the hands of the Taliban.
Taliban fighters from the Fateh Zwak unit storm into the Kabul International Airport, wielding American supplied weapons, equipment and uniforms after the United States Military have completed their withdrawal, in Kabul, Afghanistan. © MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES
What connects these three historical failures of American military assistance is the common theme of hubris-driven ambition, where the on-the-ground political realities were ignored by military professionals who placed all of their faith in the preeminence of US military equipment, doctrine, and training. In supporting a corrupt, ideologically unsavory government in Ukraine with billions of dollars of US military equipment, the Biden administration appears to be falling into the same trap as its predecessors who stoked the fires of US-supported conflict in South Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
By signing new ‘Lend-Lease Act’ legislation intended to fast-track US military assistance to Ukraine along the lines of the original act during the Second World War, the Biden administration ignores the lessons of history when it comes to providing military aid, namely that the cause being supported must be a just one. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were both odious regimes deserving of the justice that the allies meted out, armed in part by the ‘arsenal of democracy.’
Over time, the US has ignored the critical predicate of having a cause worthy of the sacrifice asked by those opposing it, focusing instead on sustaining through force of arms alone regimes which, in many ways, were more corrupt and unworthy of support than the forces they were arrayed against. (This is saying a lot, given that in two of these conflicts – Iraq and Afghanistan – the forces of the Islamic State and the Taliban would normally be easily classified as an enemy worth confronting.)
By supporting a Ukrainian military that has been thoroughly infiltrated by the odious ideology of neo-Nazism, the US is setting itself up for failure by once again aligning itself with a cause which, in the long run, is not worthy of the sacrifice being asked of those called upon to defend it. Allowing this military assistance to go forward devoid of the kind of mandated oversight that a SIGAR-like organization would provide all but assures that not only will US taxpayer dollars be squandered in a losing cause, but that any chance of detecting the shortcomings of the aid program early on and making the kind of critical policy adjustments necessary to stave off catastrophe will be lost.
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