Consider a country on Europe’s easternmost fringes that once shared a larger border with the former Soviet Union.
This country emerged from the dissolution of the USSR an independent state, though one still tied to Russia by its history and centralized infrastructure directed toward Moscow.
The newly independent nation has a developing economy, a high degree of political corruption and instability, and ethnic tensions within its borders. It is associated with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development, and is a member of the Council of Europe.
It has struggled with Russian interference and influence campaigns aimed at sowing public discord and distrust in democratic elections, resulting in a non-violent protest movement – a “color revolution” that resulted in a change in power.
Its reformist leadership has sought closer ties to the U.S. and Europe, alternatively hoping for membership in the NATO Alliance or European Union, while its political opponents have generally favored more balanced ties with Moscow.
Finally, it has experienced Russian forces crossing into its de jure sovereign territory – ostensibly in support of an embattled minority.
The country in question is Georgia.
But if you were reading this and guessed Ukraine, you would also be right.
The difference, however, is the intensity, duration, and goals of Russia’s military interference operations in each country.
The Georgia War occurred in August 2008 and lasted all of 12 days. Long-simmering ethnic tensions in the tiny former Soviet South Ossetia Oblast erupted, resulting in a brief Russian air, land, and sea military intervention that spilled over into undisputed Georgian territory. It ended with Moscow officially recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and an ethnic cleansing of Georgians from South Ossetian territory.
Despite Georgia’s deepening ties to the United States and its support for U.S.-led combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington – tied down by two foreign military operations and a looming presidential election – did little to aid the Georgian government. It even turned down requests for delivery of anti-tank and air-defense weaponry.
The Europeans were even more lackluster in their support for Georgia, opting instead to largely blame Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili for provoking Russia into war. The backlash against Russia for its intervention in Georgia was nil, and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated a ceasefire largely favoring Russian interests (that was also violated by Russia without consequence).
It was at this time that the die for Russia’s subsequent behavior in the region was cast.
Fast forward to February 24, 2022, when Russia launched its military “special operation” invasion of Ukraine and the reaction from NATO members and the European Union stands in stark contrast.
Having already undertaken a stealthy military operation in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula resulting in its occupation and official absorption by Moscow, plus its support for destabilization activities by ethnic Russian minority populations in Donetsk and Luhansk (collectively referred to as the Donbass), the intentions of Russia toward Ukraine writ large were hardly secret.
Nor was Moscow’s capacity for aggression in its former Soviet satellite, which suffered tremendously from a terror-famine campaign (the Holodomor) orchestrated in the early 1930s by Josef Stalin and other Soviet leaders from Moscow.
The leadup period to the invasion and the totality of Russia’s aims – as spelled out by its President Vladimir Putin – compelled Western leaders to collectively decry Moscow’s actions and begin to take stock of their own past willingness to overlook Russian aggression along its former Soviet periphery in Eastern Europe.
Once the invasion began, Germany undertook an introspective look at how it had indirectly aided Russia and bought into a post-Cold War mindset that left its military unable to contribute substantially to EU- or NATO-led operations. Finland and Sweden – both members of the European Union but notionally non-aligned militarily – began exploring the possibility of joining the NATO Alliance.
The United States has led the way in its support for Ukraine and the initially beleaguered government of its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, sending endless streams of ammunition, anti-tank and anti-air missiles, drones, and other assorted hardware along with financial commitments outstripping the annual defense budgets of most European members of NATO.
Washington has also prodded its Central and Eastern European NATO partners to send their old Soviet-era equipment to Ukraine to sustain Ukrainian resistance efforts and ease the absorption this hardware into military ranks.
The funneling of excess defense articles plus newer, key capabilities such as Stinger anti-air systems, Javelin anti-armor systems, Switchblade loitering munitions, the lightweight M777 howitzer and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) have helped Ukrainian forces stop Russian advances and further enabled them to launch successful counter-offensives.
But the more eye-opening aspect of all the trans-Atlantic support for Ukraine is the level of military/security financial assistance to Kyiv.
Since the opening days of Russia’s invasion, more and more funding has flowed eastward, ensuring the Ukrainian government is capitalized and its military operations underwritten.
$13.7 billion in direct military aid to Ukraine by the U.S. so far this year. If valued stand-alone that total would place Ukraine as the 5th-largest defense spender in Europe for 2022, behind 🇬🇧🇫🇷🇩🇪🇮🇹 and ahead of 🇵🇱 depending on the daily exchange rate. https://t.co/b0VjcNf1cR
— Dan Darling (@DanielRDarling) August 24, 2022
When combined the total contribution of these two countries amounts to the fifth-largest topline defense figure in Europe for 2022.
In other words, the estimated $17.7 billion in military-security assistance received by Ukraine this year would put its defense budget behind only those of Britain, Germany, France, and Italy.
This is a remarkable figure when considering that the defense budget allocated to the Ukrainian military by its government amounted to just under $4.4 billion last year.
And that’s not the entirety of the total.
Others across Europe and NATO – including EU institutions (to the tune of $2.5 billion) – are helping the Ukrainian cause as well.
Poland has given $1.8 billion, with Germany providing $1.2 billion, Canada just under $1 billion, Denmark around $300 million, France around $250 million, Latvia some $220 million, and Norway at least $210 million. Countless others have also provided financial aid and military equipment.
Without including all the other contributions from across Europe, the back-of-the-envelope total comes to over $25 billion in security-military funding for Ukraine, which when indexed in Europe’s defense budgetary landscape would now raise it to the fourth-largest topline figure for this year.
When viewed from afar – and without any general background information and historical context – the shift in trans-Atlantic attitudes towards providing aid to a non-EU, non-NATO country caught in Russia’s crosshairs from 2008 to 2022 is undeniable, even remarkable.
No longer fearful of diplomatic fallout with Moscow, forced to remove blinders self-imposed by a longing for peace and reliable energy inflows, countries across Europe have awakened to a new strategic reality on their continent – one closer to their borders than that short, more distant conflict across the Black Sea in Georgia that today seems so very long ago.