Don’t Raise the Stakes in Ukraine

The release of a report this week by eight former U.S. government officials calling for the United States to send arms to Ukraine has reopened debate on the issue. The dispute is also lent urgency by the recent sickening escalation of violence in the Donbas, especially against civilians, as well as signs that some within the Obama administration may be reconsidering their stance on this issue. As appalling as the ferocity of recent fighting has been, however, the arguments against arming Ukraine remain as solid as they were three months ago. It would raise the stakes with Russia, while offering little prospect of ending the conflict.

The arguments made in the report, cosponsored by Brookings, the Atlantic Council and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs - seem compelling on the surface. The authors argue that the provision of lethal, but solely defensive, weapons would better allow Ukrainian troops to defend themselves against continuing attacks from pro-Russian rebels. As the evidence indicates that the rebels themselves are being supplied with advanced weapons from Moscow, American weapons would place Ukrainian forces on a more even footing. The report further asserts that such weaponry could raise the continued costs of backing the rebels for Moscow, bringing Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table.

Unfortunately, arming Ukraine will cause more problems than it solves. Certainly, such a move would be a propaganda coup for Russia, which has already been using state media to perpetuate the idea that NATO is involved in the crisis. Russian media is extremely good at blurring key facts to make a coherent, anti-Western narrative, even if the narrative itself is fundamentally false. It won’t matter than the weapons are ‘defensive’ in nature; the Russian media can spin this to bolster their arguments that Ukraine’s government is illegitimate and that the conflict is being driven by NATO. It could even increase popular support for the war among the Russian population.

Arming Ukraine will also shift U.S. policy further away from that of European allies. Although the report’s authors note that many European states could also be encouraged to provide weapons, several key states have already weighed in against such a move. Just yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters: “Germany will not support Ukraine with weapons… I am convinced that this conflict cannot be solved militarily.” Differentiating the U.S. response from that of European leaders will only provide more ammunition for Russian dissension, further minimizing the likelihood of a diplomatic settlement.

Logistical problems abound. Compatibility may be a major problem given Ukraine’s primarily Soviet and post-Soviet armaments. Timing is another concern: although the report suggests that the U.S. could use current stocks of weapons, it may be logistically impossible to get large quantities of arms to Ukraine, or complete any necessary training, in time for the likely spring offensive by pro-Russian rebels. Even if these problems were overcome, the assumption that weapons will help Ukrainian forces is itself problematic. The Ukrainian army is poorly trained, and would likely require expert support and training from U.S. personnel. The integration of volunteer units into fighting forces is patchy, and corruption remains a problem. Even with U.S. weapons, there is effectively no prospect of a Ukrainian military triumph. 

This brings us to the fundamental problem with the report: an assumption that if Western states can simply raise the costs of conflict high enough, Vladimir Putin will fold under domestic pressure. Raising the costs of conflict for Russia will necessarily increase in the violence in the Donbas. The conflict is already bloody, with thousands of military and civilian casualties. While the Russian government has shown some sensitivity to the costs of the conflict – i.e., casualty numbers are being effectively hidden from the Russian people – it is still extremely unlikely that Putin, who has in large part staked his domestic credibility on this confrontation, will back down. If he does not, the West has little comeback.

Arming Ukraine won’t help to secure military victory, and will not encourage Vladimir Putin to back down. At best, it may help Ukraine to better withstand rebel attacks. But doing so comes at a very high cost, giving Russia additional propaganda material and driving a wedge between Europe and the United States. Worse, it raises the stakes in Ukraine, and will likely serve to increase, not decrease the bloodshed. Let’s hope the White House continues to take a pragmatic approach to the crisis, and resists the temptation to arm Ukraine.