By Arie Groenveld, Transatlantic Security Analyst
Since the Ukraine Crisis began, Western states have faced growing pressure to provide the Ukrainian government with lethal weapons to combat Russian and separatist forces in the east of the country. President Obama has so far been reluctant to provide arms, first wanting to give sanctions more time and exhaust all possible diplomatic efforts. The administration is torn on the issue, as are many European governments that have been involved in seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict. German, French and other European leaders are, however, more vocally opposed to arming Ukraine, doubtful that such as escalation would convince Putin to back down. As Russia positions itself for another military intervention and the conflict resumes, many Western leaders will face renewed calls to send lethal aid to Kiev – a dangerous proposition that they should resist.
Arguments for lethal aid
Russian and separatist forces made significant gains this year and inflicted heavy losses on the Ukrainian army. The U.S. pledged to support Ukraine with non-lethal aid, but even fulfilling that promise has fallen short so far. The U.S has not sent many urgently requested items, such as body armor, night vision devices, aviation fuel and more sophisticated communications equipment, which it dubbed “force multipliers.” Ukraine is currently undergoing a full military mobilization and possesses a large domestic arms industry. Despite these factors, experts claim that Ukraine will not be able to defend its territory against Russian and separatist forces if it does not acquire the requested equipment. While Ukraine may still be unable to stop their advance with lethal aid, raising the costs of intervention for Russia might help change Putin’s calculations.
The Ukraine Freedom Support Act of December 2014 authorized President Obama to provide weapons to Ukraine, but so far the president has instead opted to pursue diplomatic and economic efforts. The first was through sanctions and the second was via the Minsk Agreements, which have not yielded any significant results. Calls for arming Ukraine increased after the Minsk ceasefires failed to stop the fighting and secure a change in Moscow‘s policy. In March, the House of Representatives voted 348 to 48 on a resolution urging the president to provide lethal aid to Kiev. Their views have been echoed by Obama Administration officials and high-profile commentators such as General Wesley Clark. Many believe that not reacting to Russian aggression in Ukraine will be interpreted as tolerating it, and therefore invite further aggression elsewhere. This last point in particular has driven many Baltic and Eastern European states to push for a permanent NATO presence on Russia’s periphery, out of fear that they could be next.
The potential hazards of supplying Ukraine with lethal aid have shaped the debate from the beginning. If the West as a whole, or the United States alone, pursues this policy, it is argued that Russia would not hesitate to match it. Russia could supply greater quantities of arms to the separatists more rapidly than the U.S., and possibly even its NATO allies, would be able to supply Kiev. Moscow could also intensify its own direct involvement, which would further escalate the conflict. Russia would likely escalate regardless of any initial success Ukrainian forces might achieve, calling into doubt the net efficacy of lethal aid in the first place. Furthermore, the prospect of Russian citizens being killed by American weaponry would serve Russia’s disinformation campaign against the West and possibly act as a catalyst for retaliation.
A decision to supply lethal aid to Ukraine would also jeopardize Western cohesion. Already, internal EU disputes have marred the chances for a cohesive approach. Most visibly, Greece has pushed against broader sanctions against Russia as its new government is at odds with the rest of the Eurozone over its own economic situation. More importantly, Germany, France and many other EU states are opposed to arming Ukraine, so if the U.S. decides to do so unilaterally it might split NATO and undermine the Alliance’s credibility. Faced with escalation, Moscow could also interfere with Western policies elsewhere. Amid a warming of U.S.-Iranian relations, Moscow stands to lose a key bargaining chip in Iran and potentially a great deal of revenue from Iran’s lucrative nuclear, petrochemical and manufacturing industries if Iran has its sanctions lifted. In this scenario, Iran could even grow to compete with Russia in oil and natural gas exports, further worsening Russia’s economic outlook. Putin could set himself against rapprochement between the West and Iran and seek to thwart a deal on its nuclear program.
Policy moving forward
On balance, Western leaders have been prudent in pursuing a diplomatic solution. While renewed Russian intervention in Ukraine would be the strongest indication yet that the West’s current strategy toward Russia is insufficient to resolve the crisis, the alternative of arming Ukraine would lead to a worse outcome. Western states have little choice but to maintain their risk-averse approach of showing strength and support for NATO states closest to Russia – enhancing confidence in their Article 5 commitments –while sustaining sanctions in an effort to curtail further Russian encroachment and alter Moscow’s behavior in the longer-term.