Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
No, no, and again no. Absolutely not. Arming one side has never helped solve a conflict; it just escalates it, paving the way for direct Western intervention. That is not to mention the risk that weapons given out can later be turned against the West. But most of all, direct intervention in Ukraine, in the heart of Europe, would mean risking World War III. One should not forget that there are still nuclear weapons on European territory.
Russia has grown increasingly aggressive, and there is clearly a need to defuse that aggression. But an approach consisting only of sticks will not work; it will only reinforce Russian President Vladimir Putin domestically. Much better is the good old carrot-and-stick strategy. The West needs to be mindful of Russia’s point of view—a feeling of betrayal as there was an understanding in the 1990s that there would be no further Eastern enlargement of NATO—and find a solution that would allow both Russia and the West to save face.
Arming #Ukraine could be the last straw that leads to world disaster.Tweet This
However, Western nations must be realistic and not let pride guide them. The West still needs Russia as a partner—to achieve peace in the Middle East, to fight international and cyberterrorism, to help contain China (rather than let the two become allies), and even to go back and forth from the International Space Station.
Arming Ukraine could just be the last straw that leads to world disaster. The West should keep calm and think again.
Providing Ukraine with even defensive weapons presents huge risks. But Western countries should now do so. Peace in the country’s eastern Donbas region has been given a chance—or, rather, Moscow was given a chance to show it wanted peace. The September 2014 Minsk Protocol, for all its deficiencies, provided a basis for a settlement and bore not just Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s name but also Russian President Vladimir Putin’s. The agreement would have given considerable autonomy to the separatist-controlled Donbas while allowing Ukraine to resecure its border.
The West should make clear that arms to #Ukraine aren't a blank check.Tweet This
Yet Russia and its proxies failed to implement the protocol’s key provisions. More Russian soldiers and weapons are inside Ukraine now than before September. The ceasefire has all but collapsed; the separatists are threatening to advance further. Ukraine needs weapons that can deter such an advance by making the costs too high for Russia to contemplate. Russian casualties in Ukraine have proved Putin’s Achilles’ heel. Last August, he agreed to a ceasefire after Moscow was unable to hush up reports of body bags returning to Russia.
Western countries should make absolutely clear to Kiev the defensive purpose of any such support, and that it does not represent a military blank check. The West should calibrate its assistance so it cannot be used to launch an all-out attack that Ukraine could never win.
Arming Ukraine could prompt escalation by Moscow. But without such a deterrent, the risks of Russian escalation may be no less—and its consequences for Ukraine even worse.
The question of whether the West should arm Ukraine is particularly vexing, because there is no good answer—and because the price of indecision is mounting.
In the yes column is the obvious moral imperative to support an aggrieved party seeking to right a clear wrong. In the no column, however, is the overwhelming likelihood that no amount of armament—short of direct NATO intervention—is likely to shift the balance in a war the Kremlin is determined not to lose. Moreover, the delivery of powerful weapons is at least as likely to increase the death toll as to reduce it.
Arming #Ukraine is likely to rupture transatlantic solidarity.Tweet This
Yet the reality is that there is no question of whether the West will arm Ukraine. There is a question of whether the United States will do so, perhaps joined by a few others. The price of arming Ukraine is likely to be a rupture in transatlantic solidarity, and therefore the loss of the greatest asset the West has had in this fight to date.
Rather than ratchet up the violence in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, the West should invest more heavily in isolating Russian President Vladimir Putin, making it clear to Beijing, New Delhi, and São Paolo, as well as Astana and Yerevan, that they have no common cause with a government that revels in such a bloodbath.
Should the front push farther to the south and west, this calculation may change, and the United States’ European allies may also prove more willing. Until then, better to speak softly but firmly, saving the big stick for later.
Watching the abundance of modern Russian weapons in the hands of the rebels in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, it is hard not to argue that Kyiv deserves similar support from the West. The many advocates of arming Ukraine are doing an important job, but they should consider two points from a local perspective.
First, sending weapons to Ukraine might not deter Moscow but could actually determine it to fight on. Russian history is full of sacrifice for the homeland, and Donbas was once considered the heart of the Soviet Union.
Second, Ukraine’s statehood looks more fragile than ever in the country’s modern history. Civil society is carrying out the bulk of the work to reform Ukraine, while state institutions are still underperforming—but overpromising—at best. Amid creeping economic hardship, not everyone thinks that Donbas is worth fighting for.
The West must mobilize financial support to avoid Kyiv's collapse.Tweet This
To link these two points together: to make weapons effective against the Donbas rebels, the West needs to mobilize the necessary financial support to avoid Kyiv’s collapse. Western weapons would require soldiers on the ground to operate them, or at least to provide training to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Sending arms to Ukraine—a step that may be seen as small and essential to help Kyiv—may mean the West taking direct responsibility for the crisis. Instead, Ukraine and the West’s shared priorities should be peace, the economy, and reforms.
Filling Ukraine with U.S. arms is an escalation too far when nonweaponized pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin remains so limited. The history of Western-armed interventions that turned sour should be a warning to those advocating arming Ukraine.
Filling #Ukraine with U.S. arms is an escalation too far.Tweet This
Historian Timothy Garton Ash’s argument that only guns can stop guns is wrong. Soldiers defeat soldiers, not lumps of metal, and a step toward deploying NATO soldiers in Ukraine is not right.
Instead, the West should publish the names of Russian soldiers sent back in body bags and massively step up Russian-language broadcasts and online media coverage to offset Putin’s propaganda machine. Ukraine needs economic and administrative support to overcome corruption and disband the far-right paramilitary Azov Battalion with its Swastika insignia.
The West can send some high-tech kit to Ukraine, but for democracies to revert to early-twentieth-century arms buildups as the answer to the conflict will show that the West has learned nothing. Yet if the Berlin-Rome-Paris-London axis of Putin sympathizers continues to dominate EU policy and refuses to act to deal with his invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory (short of sending arms), then the pressure for greater military support to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression can only grow.
The trouble with contemporary European thinking is its lack of complexity. In the eurozone crisis, the EU is asking “Should we dump Greece?” or else “Should we erase Greece’s debt?” In Athens, the choice is between “Should we default on our debt?” and “Should we suffer under the heel of the troika?”
When it comes to facing Russian President Vladimir Putin, the black-and-white debate descends into “Should we impose more sanctions on Moscow?” versus “Guys, let’s think energy and exports and forget about Donbas!” Now, the options are to arm Ukraine or not to arm Ukraine. Both questions generate wrong answers.
Leaving Kiev an open city, like the desperate capital immortalized in Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece The White Guard, would simply bolster all of Putin’s worst instincts. Arming Kiev without a strategy would have the same sorry effects.
#Ukraine is not a symbol to be shielded but part of a war of attrition.Tweet This
Ukraine, like Republican Spain in 1936, is not a symbol to be shielded but part of a complex proxy war of attrition—military, diplomatic, economic, geopolitical. The country’s defense indeed needs to be cushioned, but in the context of a sophisticated strategy capable of squeezing Moscow and the ruble while countering the Kremlin’s efforts to buy its way into Eastern Europe (see Hungary).
As for the EU’s response, the union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and European Council President Donald Tusk should iron out their differences—and there is a huge gap in their attitudes, worldviews, and even values—before they go public with any decisions. The European Central Bank and its president, Mario Draghi, could play a role.
Then, the West could wisely plug some of Kiev’s worst military gaps while imposing on Ukraine at least some degree of restraint on corruption and inanity. There are no good versus bad solutions, just bad-ish versus very bad ones. Let’s hope the West doesn’t fall into the category of tragic solutions.
The latest offensive by Russia and its proxies has laid bare the strategic incoherence of Western policy. Russia’s aim is to fragment Ukraine and incapacitate it. Without a step change by the West, that aim could be realized.
#Russia has laid bare the strategic incoherence of Western policy.Tweet This
What is the West’s aim? Is it restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, implementation of the Minsk Protocol, an agreement to halt the war in the country’s east, or, as the White House said on February 2, “peaceful deescalation”? Absent a firm Western aim and tools to support it, the aggressor will define the game and the rules; every demarcation line will be sacred until a new one is imposed.
EU and U.S. sanctions have weakened the Russian economy, but not the Kremlin’s will—let alone the state-of-the-art weaponry that is now cutting Ukraine’s forces to ribbons. If the West’s goal is to damage Russia, time is on its side. But if it is to preserve Ukraine, it is not; that requires a package of measures: military and economic, technical and institutional. It means showing Ukraine’s soldiers and civilians that the West stands with them. And it means showing Ukraine’s authorities that the West expects change.
Any lesser course will demoralize Ukraine and tempt Russia to gamble ever more recklessly with its neighbor’s future and its own.
If anyone is going to arm Ukraine anytime soon, it won’t be Germany or the EU as a bloc. Only the United States is considering supplying weapons to Ukraine to help the country defend itself. Some European countries might follow, but they are rather cautious. Poland, for example, doesn’t want to undermine EU unity and appear hostile toward Russia.
If anyone is going to arm #Ukraine, it won't be Germany or the EU.Tweet This
When deciding whether to arm Kiev, the United States must consider two aspects. Number one is the impact this would have on the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Would sending arms lead to an escalation or a deescalation?
Both are possible. A supply of Western weapons may push Russian President Vladimir Putin to move from unofficial to official war with Ukraine, which might be much bloodier than it already is. But it could also deter Russia by raising the cost of aggression considerably. Russians don’t want a war with Ukraine, and Putin may want to go back to better relations with the West one day.
The second aspect is the impact of providing arms on the Western coalition. Germany has ruled out arming Ukraine. The fragile consensus in Germany and the EU in favor of sanctions might implode once the United States delivers weapons. There is general backing for sanctions because they are a nonmilitary tool. A United States that sends weapons to Ukraine would support the argument that the West’s actions are not about defending Europe’s peace order, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel argues, but about U.S. military expansion, as some in Europe maintain.
Washington may conclude that the current approach to the Ukraine crisis has failed, and that the country needs to be supplied with weapons. If it does so, the United States must be aware that it is taking the lead on the war in Ukraine and, with it, full responsibility for the Western response to Russia’s aggression. In other words, arming Ukraine would mean a serious engagement that the United States has so far avoided.
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