Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, February 23, 2015

Arming Ukraine?

Ukrainian troops ride on an armored vehicles ahead of self-propelled artillery near Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. A Ukrainian military spokesman says continuing attacks from rebels are delaying Ukrainian forces' pullback of heavy weapons from the front line in the country's east. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

Should the US send arms to Ukraine?  A recent report by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs argues that the US ought to do so. These three think tanks call for $3 billion in weapons to Ukraine over the next three years (2015-2017). A bedrock assumption they make is that a militarily beefed up Ukraine will force Putin to back down, once he clearly understands the high costs entailed with fighting an empowered Ukraine and that the US is serious about aiding and supporting Ukraine.

News reports indicate that the White House is considering this idea. Apparently, Obama is having doubts about his initial reluctance to arm Ukraine, and new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has voiced sentiments supporting US efforts to arm Ukraine.

This is bad news, for several reasons.

1. Although Obama won’t and arguably can’t say it, Ukraine isn't an American interest. Ukraine is poor and weak. It does little to impact the balance of power in Europe between Russia and America’s friends in the EU/NATO. Additionally, Ukraine offers little in the way of trade and resources to the US. With this in mind, then, why should the US devote so much effort and resources to an area that’s really only tangentially related to American interests?

2. On the other hand, Ukraine is Russia’s interest. In fact, it's a core Russian interest. Just think about it. Ukraine is historically linked to Russia, it sits next door to Russia, and Russian agencies have durable links to various Ukrainian institutions. Arming Ukraine, thereby signaling a strong attempt by the US (and the West more generally) to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence, is almost guaranteed to spark an escalation in the ongoing conflict. In short, Putin will fight long and hard for Ukraine if provoked by the US or Europe. And just as problematic, the US doesn't have the stomach nor the capabilities, given all the other military imbroglios the US is currently involved in, to win outright a military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.

3. Will weapons the US transfers to Ukraine stay in friendly hands? Recent events says maybe not. Indeed, if nothing else, the recent lessons of Iraq and Syria should give American policymakers great pause about arming foreign forces/militias.

4. Professor Kimberly Martin, of Columbia University, makes a very salient point: arming Ukraine gives Putin a tailor-made rationale to escalate the conflict, one that he can likely adeptly wield domestically. She writes, “rather than prompting him to negotiate, sending U.S. and NATO weapons to Ukraine would give him an excuse to declare that Russian forces must go into Ukraine to defend Russia from American attack. It is not in America’s interests to risk direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia, in non-NATO territory that Russia claims as its sphere of interest.”

5. It’s highly likely that more weapons entering the fray, in the end, will only contribute to prolonging the conflict and causing more people to get hurt and killed. And along the way, it will also cause tremendous pain and damage on Ukraine. And keep in mind, there are deep asymmetries in military capabilities between Ukraine and Russia; sending arms won’t tip the balance to Ukraine’s side. A more heavily armed Ukraine would be able to fight longer, but not win the war.

6. But maybe tipping the balance isn’t the point? Maybe the US ought to arm Ukraine in order to bleed Russia dry. It’s a cynical calculation, to be sure. Here, the idea isn’t really help Ukraine win the conflict; instead, it’s to suck the Russians in more, force them to up their military investment in Ukraine at a time when Russia’s economy is in the dumps and the country is running low on money. This was the same logic the US, under Jimmy Carter and later Ronald Reagan, used in its involvement in the decade-long Afghan war in the 1980s. Their efforts did work, in that the protracted war helped to contribute to the crash of the old Soviet empire. Of course, as we now know, a major downside is that the long war there created a hornet’s nest of extremists, radicals and terrorists and a sanctuary for them to hide and scheme—something that exists in Afghanistan to this day. Does the US want Ukraine to turn into something that resembles Afghanistan in the heart of Europe? That’s a very risky bet to make.

Well, if arming Ukraine isn't a good idea, what should be done? While a complete answer is beyond the scope of this post, let’s hit some major parts of a hypothetical response to Putin/the conflict in Ukraine.

1. Let Putin shoot himself in the foot. Don’t overreact to him and his moves. That's not all that should be done, but that's a major part of it. It’s not sexy, and it’s passive, but it’s the right thing to do. After all, Putin is not the military and security mastermind that’s portrayed by the American right. In fact, a growing number of Russian experts have the impression that Putin is simply making it up as he goes along. Just consider these realities nowadays. Russia is economically weaker at this point because of the sharp drop in oil prices and the sanctions imposed by the West. But those economic problems will likely only get worse over time, as Russia now has to pay for and protect Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. It’s adding to its empire at time when it can least afford to do so.

2. Tough diplomacy is essential, as a negotiated settlement is necessary in the end. To start, US officials have to know what Putin wants. Among other things, Putin will likely want Ukraine as a buffer state, having limits to its links to the West. NATO is a no-go, as is full membership within the EU. Putin will also probably want Eastern Ukraine to have substantial autonomy. The key here is to see how much wiggle room there is to negotiate on these issues. For instance, can US concessions cause Putin to bend on some of his grand designs on Ukraine?  

3. I'd be in favor of beefing up defenses in NATO countries and working on the installation of missile defenses in Poland, among other things. These countries are important to the US and should be protected in case Putin, however unlikely, casts a wandering eye beyond Ukraine.

4. Build up the capacity of the Ukrainian state. The US should focus on helping Ukraine to root out corruption, pay down its debt, find ways to create more jobs, and stabilize its political system. This probably won’t alienate Russia, and, if done well, it might even woo some of the Russian nationalists to accept the authority and legitimacy of the government in Kiev.

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