Don’t Arm Ukraine

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US Vice President Joe Biden is due to land in Kiev and one topic that the Ukrainians will surely bring up is whether the US will provide weapons to fend off a Russian incursion. After all, Poroshenko asked for weapons when he spoke in front of the US Congress in September when he famously declared, “blankets [and] night-vision goggles are also important. But one cannot win a war with blankets.” He went home with more blankets. Surely he’ll again bring the issue of up with Biden, especially as Russia arms the separatists and rumors swirl of a rebel offensive.

Already anticipating such a discussion, Moscow has stated that giving Kiev weapons would further destabilize the situation. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich warned against “a major change in policy of the [U.S.] administration in regard to the conflict” in Ukraine, adding that sending arms would be “a direct violation of agreements reached, including [agreements reached] with the participation of the U.S.”

Now putting aside the sheer cynicism of such statements, considering Russia has itself destabilized Ukraine by supplying the separatists with weapons, Lukashevich is sending a clear warning: arming Ukraine would certainly cause the Russians to double down and treat the conflict as the proxy war with the West it already thinks it is. This war is not one Ukraine can ultimately win. Weapons will only exacerbate the bloodletting, further crystallize the new “iron curtain” in eastern Ukraine, and perhaps even drawn the United States into another conflict it neither wants nor needs. Arming Ukraine would be a disaster.

Yet there’s a chorus of politicians and pundits who think arming Ukraine is a grand idea.

Over the last few days, the White House has been getting Congressional pressure to supply Ukraine with weapons. In a joint statement on Tuesday, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham said in the joint statement that “The Obama Administration’s policy in Ukraine effectively amounts to an arms embargo on victims of aggression,” and that “the United States and the European Union must provide Ukraine with the arms and related military and intelligence support that its leaders have consistently sought and desperately need.” McCain and Graham essentially want to turn the conflict into an open proxy war between the United States and Russia. “Providing Ukrainians with the ability to defend themselves,” they wrote, “would impose a far greater cost on Putin than he has paid thus far.”

Pundits have also been weighing on the issue. Writing in the LA Times, Bennett Ramber, who served in the State Department’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs under George H.W. Bush, argues that the United States has an obligation to defend Ukraine based on the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. He writes:

History provides two other options: Sit back, pout and watch, the strategy Washington applied to Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The approach concedes Ukraine as part of Moscow’s sphere in influence or more. Or the U.S. can bleed the separatists and Russian intervenors by providing Ukraine with lethal weapons, and not just nonlethal aid, repeating the successful strategy the U.S. applied to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

“Taking the second option, arming Ukraine, he continues, “would not cross World War I’s mobilization threshold but still overcome the appeasement policy of pre-World War II, and thus presents a prudent path giving Ukraine a better chance to defend itself. It also would restore Washington’s credibility that it will go to bat for countries that, under its imprimatur, give up the bomb and find a tiger — or in this case, a bear — at the gates threatening its survival.”

In an op-ed in USA Today, Ilan Berman, the Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council, argues that time is running out to take action and arm Ukraine.

“The window to do so is narrow indeed. Congress has mere weeks to conduct real work ahead of the coming winter recess. And with other pressing issues, such as a reauthorization of the federal budget, now on the legislative agenda, there is a real danger that foreign affairs matters (Ukraine among them) will get crowded out of the deliberations completely. Should that happen, it would be nothing short of a geopolitical victory for Russia, and a moral and operational defeat for Ukraine’s beleaguered pro-Western government.”

Indeed, Congress is ready to arm Ukraine. It just has to vote. There are two bills before it that have broad bi-partisan support: the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014 and the Ukraine Security Assistance Act of 2014. The first, which has already passed the Foreign Relations Committee, allows for the provision of “defense articles, defense services, and training to the Government of Ukraine for the purpose of countering offensive weapons and reestablishing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including anti-tank and anti-armor weapons; crew weapons and ammunition; counter-artillery radars to identify and target artillery batteries; fire control, range finder, and optical and guidance and control equipment; tactical troop-operated surveillance drones, and secure command and communications equipment.”

The latter provides “Ukraine with appropriate intelligence and other information to determine the location, strength, and capabilities of the military and intelligence forces of the Russian Federation located on Ukraine’s eastern border and within its territorial borders, including Crimea; and take steps to ensure that such intelligence information is protected from further disclosure.”

It’s unclear which way Obama would go if presented with these bills. It will be really hard for him to veto legislation that has such bi-partisan support. It just doesn’t happen to him very often.

But this doesn’t make arming Ukraine a good idea. First, it just demonstrates again that Congress only sees throwing guns at a problem is the only viable solution. After all, what do the politicians have to lose? They can all stand up, puff out their chests and say they were tough on Russia. Forget the Ukrainian citizens who will experience the full fury of an escalated conflict.

Second, Ukraine being as corrupt as it is, there are real concerns how many of these weapons will actually end up in soldiers’ hands and not pilfered and sold on the black market. There is already evidence that some of the United States supplied “meals ready to eat” ended up being sold on black market websites. Could American weapons see a similar fate?

Third, as I said above, this is a war Ukraine can’t win. Weapons won’t turn the tide of the war in Ukraine’s favor. Sure it will, as John McCain put it, “impose a far greater cost on Putin than he has paid thus far,” but presented with such a challenge Putin will surely double down and commit more to the rebels. This would give Putin reason to push not only to Mariupol, Kharkiv, and Odessa, but perhaps to Kiev and beyond. He would not only dismember Ukraine, he would swallow it. Then what would the US do? It would either have to back down or commit more, sending the situation into a spiral downward to hell.

Fourth, given this year is the centennial of WWI, many have characterized the tensions between the US, the EU, and Russia as a recipe for another world war. Arming Ukraine has the potential to get that ball rolling. And from there who knows where things will end up.

I can understand the frustration many feel as they watch Russia flood the east with weapons. Sanctions work slow and don’t really exert the immediate necessary pressure. Also, it’s apparent that the Obama Administration doesn’t have a clear policy concerning Russia. Is it an adversary or enemy? How much does the US need Russia when it comes to Syria and Iran? These questions don’t have clear answers. But throwing more weapons into the mix will only make things worse. The only answer is diplomacy, something both sides have yet to seriously consider. If the United States wants to do something and show it’s leadership, perhaps it’s time to set aside egos and bring everyone to the table for a serious hammering out of issues. A first step would be to silence the hawks in Washington and the “war party” in Kiev.