Ukraine has provided the first "audit in practice" of the US Defense Department

Historian Timothy Snyder said Ukrainians have shown what 3% of the US military budget can achieve

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Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses the 78th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City.
Photo: Caitlin Ochs (Reuters)

US Department of Defense officials often face intense scrutiny from Congress, specifically because their agency has never been able to pass an audit. In 2022, the DoD had its fifth self-led audit in the department’s entire history, and 1,600 auditors couldn’t get it to account for roughly 60% of its $3.5 trillion in assets.

The Ukrainian military has given the DoD an “audit in practice” by showing what it could do with a meager 3% of the US military budget, argued historian Timothy Snyder in a recent Substack podcast. If the US bumped up its commitment to 6%, Ukraine could audit that as well, Snyder suggested.


“For 3% of the US defense budget, Ukrainians won the Battle of Kyiv, won the Battle of Kharkiv, won the Battle of Kherson, won about half of the territory that Russia invaded in February 2022,” Snyder said. “In practice, we can see that 3% of the US military budget worked.”

Snyder also noted that Ukraine has fulfilled NATO’s mission of resisting a Russian attack all on its own, increased security in the Pacific by making it clear to China what the costs would be of invading Taiwan—reducing the chances of war between the US and China—and kept feeding the world even during a war, among other things.


Ukraine is showing the US the value of an audit

Ukraine’s military performance is a “teachable moment” for the US military, DoD comptroller Mike McCord said after the department failed its fifth audit. To fend off Russia, Ukraine has had to track its arsenal supply very closely. McCord told reporters that a successful audit would help the US military make sure it isn’t accounting for items that aren’t there. (To be fair, defense officials expected to lose some audits because of accounting technicalities).

The DoD’s budget runs in the hundreds of billions of dollars because the department is tasked with some of the largest challenges the US faces. Its largest costs come from training military members, maintaining equipment, and insuring the healthcare of those in active service. Wages and retirement benefits rank as the second-highest cost, followed by weapons procurement, equipment R&D, and the construction and management of military facilities.

A common criticism of defense budgets is that they hinder a federal government’s ability to provide other services. On the contrary, there isn’t much of a relationship between GDP growth and military spending, and large military budgets are much more likely to be beneficial in wealthier countries like the US, which can use military spending as another form of industrial policy and have plenty of leeway to deficit spend and add to public debt. The DoD can put this year’s $816.7 billion budget to good use, but it needs an audit to ensure that those funds actually benefit the US and its foreign policy goals.


The US needs to do better for Ukraine

In a conversation yesterday (Sept. 18) with US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen at the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the US needs to send “as much military equipment as quickly as possible,” to help Ukraine get more territory. The US could also lower the price cap on Russian oil to further starve Russia’s economy, she added.


Clinton also noted that while the Biden White House has repaired international relationships that former president Donald Trump damaged while in office, there’s still work for the administration to do at home by getting Americans unified on supporting Ukraine.