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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Misunderestimating Thucydides: Why Crime[a] and Punishment for Russia will only get the West so far

Whenever I’m perplexed after reading something in the news, I typically turn to a much older set of papers for some context and sometimes, for some inspiration. As told by Thucydides:

The good faith, Lacedaemonians, which characterizes your political conduct and private intercourse towards each other, makes you the less disposed to hearken to what may be said to the prejudice of others; and from this, indeed, you derive a sober-minded moderation, but you labour always under a great misconception of the affairs of other States.

Thucydides was recounting the Corinthians’ address to the Spartan Senate, where they were comparing the Spartans with the Athenians. To the Corinthians, Sparta assumes that since they have a working constitution and a way of life that suits them well, they do not have to change their ways to confront this new issue: the growth of Athenian power. While this attitude is seen as being “moderate,” the Corinthians point out that this shows a kind of ignorance when it comes to foreign affairs.

Whether this account of the Corinthians addressing the Spartan Senate is 100% accurate or not is inconsequential. What it reveals though, is a recurring pattern in History: States and their leaders, try as they may, often misunderstand or do not consider the goals, actions and intentions of other States and their leaders. What does this have to do with Russia?

The idea that allowing the Russians to hold onto the Crimea suggests some huge decline in American power is strange, considering that in 1989, the United States’ power only reached as far as Bavaria; and if you look at the map below this one, you'll see that it now surrounds Russia on almost all sides.

The idea that allowing the Russians to hold onto the Crimea suggests some huge decline in American power is strange, considering that in 1989, the United States’ power only reached as far as Bavaria; and if you look at the map below this one, you’ll see that it now surrounds Russia on almost all sides.

Post Cold War

Voice: “Knock knock”
Putin: “Who’s there?”
Voice: “NATO”

We’ve treated the Russians as a potential threat since the 90s. We’ve expanded NATO to its doorstep, and we’re working on building missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, all to their protest.  And then comes Ukraine, where the U.S. and a coalition of Western governments backed and encouraged protesters that led to the overthrow of a sitting president that kept close ties with Russia, which was soon replaced by an interim government hostile to Russia.  What did Putin think about all of that?  Could this happen to his own government; was Kyiv a dress rehearsal for Moscow?  I suppose you’ll have to ask Putin himself, but it’s likely that he at least entertained the thought.

You’d expect American policymakers to at least try to understand Russian concerns about Ukraine joining an alliance with traditionally adversarial powers (i.e. greater cooperation with the E.U. and NATO). Obama pundits have made the argument that the President invited this crisis in Ukraine because he didn’t take a firmer stance on Syria and chose to pull out of Iraq.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  Even if Obama had bombed Syria, he still would be faced with this situation in Ukraine, and he would have been holding the same cards.  Perhaps pundits forget that the last President’s “firm stance,” a rapid expansion of the National Security state and invading two countries, did not stop Putin from invading Georgia.   Russia’s move in Georgia in ’08 and Crimea today is understandable if you accept that most powers do not like hostile governments on their borders and that most powers are always looking to maintain or grow their sphere of influence.  After all, the United States is deeply committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which warns other great powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, or else.  Like how Canada and Mexico are to us, Georgia and Ukraine aren’t just any states close to Russia’s neighborhood; they’re on its doorstep.  Over here, we live in a country with the Atlantic to our West, the Pacific to our East, Mexico at the bottom and Canada at the top.  That’s geography, and it’s not changing.  We have it pretty good over here.  If you’re Russia though, with Germany and NATO on one side, China on the other, and Japan breathing down your neck, it’s a different story altogether.

So the polls are in and we moved to another stage of this Crimean crisis: the Crimean Parliament declared independence from Ukraine, 97% of Crimean voters favored joining Russia, the Parliament formally asked Russia to join the Russian Federation, and the Kremlin signed legislation sealing the deal. Crimea is gone.  Whatever comes next, we have few options to “punish” Russia, at least in the short term, and Putin knows it.

For one, the Europeans aren’t super excited about “crippling” sanctions; London and Cyrpus really like all of that Russian money in its banking system, and from what I’ve gathered, major arteries that feed Europe’s natural gas supply flow through Ukraine, from Russia.  And all of the Western governments are trying to pass legislation to secure a bailout for Ukraine, but when has our Congress ever agreed on anything, especially when right now we’re looking for things to cut, not add to, the deficit?   And if the history of sanctions has taught us anything, it’s that regimes are willing to endure a tremendous amount of pain to secure what they see as their vital interests.

Germany relies on Russia for three-quarters of its oil and gas imports.  Sanctions on Russia could be painful for everyone.

Germany relies on Russia for three-quarters of its oil and gas imports. Sanctions on Russia could be painful for everyone.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t implement the tools that we have and are willing to use.  But it seems to me there’s little we can do about Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  Economic sanctions?  Installing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe?  Seizing assets of Putin’s friends?  Giving the Ukrainians foreign aid [and who aren’t exactly innocent in this affair, and are only united by their hatred for Yanukovych and Putin]?  Go for it.  But the reality is we’re not going to war over Crimea, and Obama has publicly stated that we will not go to war over Ukraine.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Russia is “back.”  Mitt Romney’s comment on Russia being America’s “number one geopolitical foe” falls short (but Obama was also wrong to snub him the way that he did).   This is not to say that Russia doesn’t matter, but let’s not give them too much credit: Russia may be playing geopolitical chess, but he’s playing defense.  This move in Crimea was a move made from weakness.   Ukraine has slowly been moving away from Russia, and inching toward the West.   The West hasn’t lost Ukraine.  Europe hasn’t lost Ukraine.  The United States hasn’t lost Ukraine.  Putin lost Ukraine, and he knows it.   So to save face he took a short term gain (Crimea, and saber rattling towards Eastern Ukraine) but a long term loss, and Russian influence over the rest of Europe will suffer.

Formal Ukrainian elections are going to be held in May, and it’s unlikely that any new government will be a Yanukovych; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be respectful to its [Russian] minorities and nudge Russia on with provocative gestures.   The reality is that the stability of Ukraine cannot be guaranteed with at least some level of cooperation with Russia.   After all, Ukraine is “the borderland.”  Point is, we can talk about punishing Russia all we want, but decent relations with Moscow are imperative.  We need their help with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and soon, maybe even China. Anyone who thinks this is just about Ukraine has to stop thinking like a lawyer and more like a strategist.  Thucydides would’ve understood that.

Sidenote: Though the current crisis in Ukraine is complex, we should remember that everything can always be worse.   As per an agreement signed in Budapest in 1994, Ukraine has gotten rid of all their nuclear weapons, and just two years ago eliminated all of their weapons-grade materiel.  A document signed 20 years ago prevented this from becoming a nuclear crisis. And now that’s one less thing we have to think about.