Arming Ukraine: Breaking it down

Should we arm the Ukrainian government forces?

Since the conflict began last year, the U.S. and Europe have been limiting military support for Ukraine to non-lethal equipment; things that enable the individual soldier like body armor, medical supplies, and night-vision goggles. Late last year, President Obama signed a bill that authorized the provision of more lethal weaponry to Ukraine’s military but left it up to the White House to decide whether to follow through on that move. So technically speaking, the decision has already been pre-approved. The question is, should POTUS follow through, or leave it as an option down the road for him or for the Clinton Administration next administration?

Looming over the Minsk negotiations currently underway is the prospect of deeper sanctions on Russia, an economic collapse in Ukraine, and the risk that the conflict descends into an all out war. I would use the phrase “descend into proxy war” as a piece in Bloomberg did, but is it a proxy war if one of the supposed sponsors of said “proxy war” has been openly engaging in the war since last year? A technicality I suppose.  But I digress.

So far, sanctions have failed in their aim of pressuring the Kremlin to reverse course in Ukraine. That’s not to say sanctions haven’t hurt the Russians, but it looks like they are willing to tolerate much more pain than the West is likely to give. And the increase in violence has brought back a question that the Europeans and NATO would rather not ask again: what is the next step if the Russians do not stop?

Below is a collection of most of the arguments for and against the U.S. providing the Ukrainians with lethal defensive weaponry. I read a lot, and I tend to get lost in my own thoughts, so a lot of times I jot things down like this. Welcome to my brain:

Do it:

Perhaps the most cited case for arming Ukraine is a joint report from the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Among the authors are former Supreme Allied Commander for NATO Admiral James Stavridis, former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer. If you want to have an opinion on this issue, you should definitely read the report, but for the purposes of this blog post, here are some of the key points:

  • The U.S. should give Ukraine “lethal defensive arms.” This includes more capable counter-battery systems, UAV’s for reconnaissance, electronic countermeasure systems, light-armored vehicles, and anti-armor missiles. Providing them with things such as these will raise the costs for a new Russian offensive.
  • Giving Ukraine weapons will help bring the conflict to a stalemate. Moscow will get the message: the cost of further military action will be too high. From there, a political solution can be seriously discussed.
  • If the U.S. and NATO don’t support Ukraine in a concrete, military-oriented way, the Kremlin will see this inaction as a redux of Georgia in 2008, and turn its attention to destabilizing the Baltics in a similar fashion.
  • The aid won’t allow Ukraine to defeat a new full-scale attack by the Russian military. But it would allow Kiev to inflict significant costs on Moscow if they chose to attack.
  • Deterrence is the main takeaway here. Providing these lethal arms to Ukraine will deter further escalation by Putin. Providing these arms reduces the likelihood that Russia will escalate the crisis.

Pretty straightforward.  Another decent summary is in an Op-Ed written by some of the above-mentioned authors of the report.

Don’t do it:

There has been equal, if not more, push-back by a number of scholars and subject-matter experts of similar stature to the authors of the joint reports. But it’s more scattered.

One piece that stood out was from Eugene Rumer, a Russia and Eurasia expert formerly at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, and Thomas Graham, a former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council. They have made a compelling case against sending lethal arms to Ukraine. Major points of their case, along with a some others:

  • Giving lethal arms will not sway the Kremlin to back down in Ukraine. And it could bring the West one step closer to a direct military confrontation with Russia.
  • We cannot be certain that these arms won’t go to the Ukrainian volunteer armies and private militia groups, which lack adequate training and discipline.
  • It will take many years to reform and bolster the Ukrainian military and security service, which is undertrained, underfunded, scowering for recruits, and crawling with Russian spies, making it unlikely that a delivery of such lethal arms would make a meaningful difference when going toe to toe with the Russians and the separatists.
  • What happens if Russia decides to escalate? Is the U.S. and NATO willing to enter a direct military confrontation with Russia?
  • Short of sending in the 82ndAirborne, it’s extremely doubtful that the U.S. and NATO won’t gain any significant comparative advantage over Russia in Ukraine.
  • If the Kremlin wants to destabilize Ukraine and ensure it does not successfully pivot Westward towards Europe, it will not stop until that happens.
  • Giving lethal arms and aid to Ukraine reinforces the narrative that the Kremlin tells the Russian people: Ukraine is now a puppet of the West, and the next stop for the West after Ukraine is regime-change in Moscow.

If the U.S. provides lethal arms to Ukraine, what next?  Would doing this really change the Kremlin’s calculus? Similar lines of thought are presented herehere, and here.

Since last year’s escapades, each set of talks and ceasefire agreements has only moved towards deeper conflict. The violence in eastern Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis – aside from the thousands killed and wounded, some one million have also been displaced – and a geopolitical crisis, between a European community that has hoped to put armed aggression in its past, and an insecure petro-state in decline determined to relive its imperial past and stick it to the West through armed aggression.

It seems that both sides agree that the Kremlin sees no reason to stop. It is also likely that Putin will try to solidify his gains in eastern Ukraine before the delivery of any more supplies or weaponry to Kiev can make a difference on the battlefield. Long-term, I see a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and I think this is something Putin would not mind having in his hand. I think it is also pretty clear to all parties involved that Ukraine matters much more to the Kremlin than it does to Washington, Brussels, Berlin, and the rest of Europe. What to do about that reality is the million dollar question (or if you’re in Russia, the 6,5109,500 ruble question.)

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