(The Quint brings to you 'Khairiyat', a column by award-winning author Tabish Khair, where he talks about the politics of race, the experiences of diasporas, Europe-India dynamics and the interplay of culture, history and society, among other issues of global significance.)
When I wrote this column, I had landed in New York to the news that US President Joe Biden has sanctioned 800 million dollars in military aid to Ukraine. Last week, Biden proposed a $33-billion package for Ukraine, comprising economic and military aid. This follows millions worth of weapons already provided to Ukraine by the US, the UK, Germany, etc., since Vladimir Putin, acting like the bully many of us always suspected him of being, sent his forces into Ukraine last month.
Now, I stand totally on the side of Ukraine in this war. It is simple: Ukraine, as a sovereign democratic nation, had every right to sign an international treaty (which is what NATO is), if it so wished, and Russia, as the big brother next door, had no right to invade it. No amount of sophistry on the left or the right can change this. But the thousands of weapons being pumped into Ukraine – or any country – do worry me
Weapons Industry Is Big, Big Money
It appears that the Pentagon does not know what is happening to all the weapons being sent to Ukraine. This should be worrying, for we know that weapons have a way of finding themselves in the hands of those who want to use them, for whatever reason, right or wrong. True, Ukraine is not Afghanistan, a country so awash with ‘free’ weapons that it is going to be a problem for all its neighbours for many decades. But one still wonders. There is, after all, a global black market in weapons, much of it run by organised criminals.
But, actually, this is a small worry. What worries me, even more, is the money involved. And here we are not talking of just the US or the European Union; we are also talking of Russia.
Let’s tally up the $800 million of military aid provided by Biden, with the $130 million given by the British government. There’s more. According to a White House fact sheet, in all, 30 countries have provided weapons and military supplies worth more than billions of dollars to Ukraine.
Where are these weapons coming from? Of course, they are coming from the military-industrial complex, arguably the biggest ‘hidden’ business in the world, much of it in private hands. Where is the money to ‘buy’ or produce these weapons coming from? Of course, it is coming from the taxes that ordinary citizens pay in all these countries.
How Ordinary Citizens are Financing the War
This is happening even in Russia, which has a strange mixture of state production and private capitalism: dozens of Russian oligarchs with luxury yachts in Spain, condominiums in the UK, and offshore bank accounts, are proof of it.
The war’s daily cost to Russia is estimated at around $20 billion. Of course, much of it would be in terms of economic, GDP and other losses, but it does include the ‘consumption’ of at least a few million dollars worth of weapons per day, all of them being produced by some factory with both private and state ‘investors’. That money is coming from the Russian taxpayer, too.
We know that the military-industrial complex is big business in all these countries. In terms of arms export, the US tops the list, with 9,372 billion TIVs worth of exports in 2020, followed by Russia (3,203), France (1,995), Germany (1,232), Spain (1,201), South Korea (827), Italy (807), China (760), Netherlands (488), and UK (429). TIV is the acronym for Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Trend Indicator Values, expressed in millions. These numbers may not represent real financial flows, because when aid is provided, as in the case of Ukraine now, the prices for military arms can be as low as zero. But this makes no difference to my worry, for, in every case, the price is being paid by the taxpayer.
Another Hospital or Another Warplane?
Every government, democratic or not, essentially makes money from its citizens in the forms of taxes, duties and other surcharges. Every government has to use the money to provide facilities, benefits, opportunities, safety, etc., for its citizens.
In all countries, even very capitalistic ones such as the US, the UK or Japan, the costs of public infrastructure, health, security, etc, are borne substantially by the government, often provided by subletting to private vendors. And, in all cases, the money available is limited. Choices have to be made – another hospital or another warplane?
What happens, I wonder, when large chunks of this public money are ploughed into private industries? If I were more cynical, I would stop wondering and start investing in military corporations, all of them largely camouflaged under broader rubrics.
But Who Can Argue With ‘Necessities’, After All?
My Danish friends take some pride in the fact that Denmark does not really have an arms industry. Hurrah! But Danish companies make a profit from the global arms industry, as they manufacture dual-purpose hi-tech products that are used by advanced arms manufacturers in the UK, Germany or Sweden. No one is untainted. But that is a different matter from the fact that the current Russia-Ukraine war is seemingly being run, particularly from the NATO-EU perspective, as another huge opportunity to plough public money into private (arms industry) enterprises without accountability.
Strangely, this rings a bell. Remember 2018-19, when a new virus jumped a species or two and started infecting us with COVID-19? Billions of public money was pumped into (private) big pharma. It was necessary, of course, just as arms to Ukraine are necessary now. Who can argue with necessities? Surely not the roofless family on the roadside, or the patient waiting endlessly for a bed in a hospital.
(Tabish Khair is PhD, DPhil, Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark. He tweets @KhairTabish. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)