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Arming Ukraine Is a Bad Idea

The first several months of a new administration are inevitably seen as an opening for those who hope to influence the White House over the next four years. The Senate Ukraine Caucus—a bipartisan group of senior lawmakers who have lobbied intensively for a closer U.S.-Ukraine relationship—hopes to take advantage of this sensitive period, in which the new president will order policy reviews, modifications in existing programs, or even a clean break from the past.

In a letter to President-elect Trump, the caucus writes that it is absolutely critical for the United States to enhance its support to Kiev at a time when Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to support a separatist movement on Ukrainian soil. “Quite simply,” the group claims [1], “Russia has launched a military land-grab in Ukraine that is unprecedented in modern European history. These actions in Crimea and other areas of eastern Ukraine dangerously upend well-established diplomatic, legal, and security norms that the United States and its NATO allies painstakingly built over decades.”

On this score, the senators are correct. Russia’s stealth invasion, occupation, and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula was for all intents and purposes a land-grab denounced not only by the United States but by the United Nations as a violation of state sovereignty and self-determination.  

But let’s not kid ourselves; this isn’t the first time a stronger power will attempt to change the borders of a weaker neighbor, nor will it be the last. The Russians saw an opportunity to immediately exploit the confusion of Ukraine’s post-Viktor Yanukovych period. Moscow’s signing of the Minsk accords, an agreement that was designed to de-escalate the violence in Eastern Ukraine through mutual demobilization of heavy weapons along the conflict line and a transfer of border control from separatist forces back to the Ukrainian government, has been stalled to the point of irrelevance.

It is incontrovertible that, were it not for Russia’s military support and intervention in the summer of 2014, the Ukrainian army would likely have been able to defeat the separatist units that were carving out autonomous “peoples’ republics” in the east—or at the very least, degrade rebel capabilities to such an extent that Kiev would be able to win more concessions at the negotiating table.

Yet while we should acknowledge Russia’s violations of international law and the U.N. Charter, U.S. and European policymakers also need to recognize that Ukraine is far more important for Moscow’s geopolitical position than Washington’s.

There is a reason why Vladimir Putin made the fateful decision in 2014 to plunge Russian forces into Ukraine, and it wasn’t because he was itching for a war of preemption. He deployed Russian forces across the Ukrainian border—despite the whirlwind of international condemnation and the Western financial sanctions that were likely to accompany such a decision—because preserving a pro-Russia bent in the Ukraine body politic was just too important for Moscow’s regional position.

Grasping this reality in no way excuses Moscow’s behavior. It merely explains why the Russian government acted the way it did, and why further U.S. military assistance to the Ukrainian security forces would be ill-advised. In fact, one could make a convincing case that providing hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to the Ukrainian government wouldn’t help the situation at all, and might lead Kiev to delude itself into thinking that Washington will come to its immediate military aid in order to stabilize the battlefield.

Since 2015, the United States Congress has authorized $750 million to improve the defensive capabilities of the Ukrainian military and security forces. Congress has followed up those funds with an additional $650 million earmarked for the Ukrainians over the next two years, a hefty sum that the next administration would probably use as a message to the Russians that further territorial encroachment on Ukrainian territory would produce more casualties in their ranks.    

What the next administration needs to ask itself, however, is whether more money thrown at the Ukraine problem will be more or less likely to cause further violence in the country and turmoil for Ukraine’s elected government. Russia has demonstrated consistently that it will simply not permit a pro-Western democratic government from emerging along its western border—and that if a pro-Western government is formed in Kiev, Moscow will do its best to preserve a pro-Russian bent in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. Hundreds of millions of dollars in appropriations haven’t forced Russia to change that calculation so far; it’s not likely that hundreds of millions more will be any more successful. Indeed, every time Washington has escalated its rhetoric or authorized money for Ukraine’s military, the Russians have responded in equal terms.

The political crisis in Ukraine is far from resolved, in large measure because of Russia’s own actions on the ground and its nonexistent implementation of the Minsk peace agreement. But the situation in the east, while not fully peaceful by any means, is far less violent than it was at the war’s peak in 2015. Sometimes, not weighing in can be just as smart for the U.S. national interest as getting involved—a reflex that is has been the forte of Washington’s foreign policy establishment since the end of the Cold War.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Arming Ukraine Is a Bad Idea"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 21, 2016 @ 9:31 pm

The Trump administration is not going to arm Ukraine. He and Vladimir Putin are a mutual admiration society, if not exactly friends.

#2 Comment By John S On December 22, 2016 @ 10:07 am

I think it should be up to the Ukrainians to decide whether more weaponry would serve their purposes or not. It’s incontrovertible that the Ukrainians’ will to defend their country is stronger than the Russians’ will to impose itself. Russia is going to lose this one sooner or later.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 22, 2016 @ 11:43 am

I am unclear why there is so much coaching on behalf of the Europeans and the US. look this an issue because the EU and the US exploited a debate concerning the purchase of oil. While one can understand the desire to entice the Ukraine further west in philosophy and practice the method made no sense. It was counter productive.

And if we are going to indict the Russians on issues of law then the role of the US and the EU in the crisis from the start point makes the attempt messy if not out right inappropriate.

One of the failings we in the west must acknowledge is that democracy is a slow and frustrating process. It on many occasions doesn’t yield the most efficient or effective policies. It is deeply partisan sometimes the one’s opponents win the day. Democracy may if fact be the worst form of governance for some societies.

But whatever the case violent revolution based on disgruntled members of an opposing side every ten years is bound to be destructive.

Further I am unclear how one can make arguments against what the Ukrainians in the northern part of the country are doing based on a state that legitimized it system via revolution. Europe as with many parts of the world are comprised on countries with populations whose identity are deeply divided. I am not sure it’s unreasonable to comprehend a response in response to violence that appears to have targeted a particular ethnic minority.

I am at a loss why our foreign “experts” did not foresee and anticipate the result of the revolution they encourage and should have discouraged. It is not as if these types of regional loyalties are new to the Europeans. They have been the cause of no small conflagrations.

#4 Comment By Yuriy On December 22, 2016 @ 6:39 pm

I think just a good idea to arm themselves to Ukraine, if you want destavbilizirovat post-Soviet space, if you want to go on and on Russian kill Russian, because Russian kill Russian.
Basically Ukraine is no longer needed Russia, Russia now has its Crimea. There was one problem, Ukrainians and Russian for the Russian people – it is one people, and Russian human hurt and pain when near them die other Russian people just because of the country came to power pro-Western oligarchs and American citizens are sitting in government.
Therefore, Ukraine is fighting so many Russian volunteers, so in addition to humanitarian convoys Russians collect money and goods to residents of Donbass.
You should continue to arm the Ukraine, if you think that “show must go on”, and that Russian were still the aggressors and occupiers.

#5 Comment By EstonianWolf On December 23, 2016 @ 4:32 am

Ukraine is a big country (population 1/3 of Russia’s) and has very significant domestic arms industry. They are more than capable of arming themselves.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 23, 2016 @ 9:28 am

What’s another billion or two of American taxpayer debt to invest in propping up the regime change government that cost five billion to install against the will of half its country?

Given the demographics, the commitment must be open ended, else the regime falls of its own internal contradiction.

This is how Iraq went from being supposed to pay for its own overthrow, to trillions of dollars past and yet to come to try to maintain a fig leaf of control.

There are putative euphemistic “American interests” at stake it s true, but these are by no means able to be conflated with the interests of hundreds of millions of Americans.

They are actually in direct contradiction, because the elite decision to rely on both world financial hegemony, with financialization and militarism as domestic economic drivers, don’t result in a better standard of living, but its steady erosion as other more productive activity moves elsewhere eviscerating employment. Such a misallocation on vast scale also leads to a general climate of arms race, robbing humanity in the way Eisenhower criticized, and leading inevitably to armed conflict and all the ills that ensue from war.

#7 Comment By Lars On December 23, 2016 @ 12:32 pm

Eastern Ukrainians controlling that majority of the country would rather look to the West for inspiration and economic development than Russia. I can’t blame them. In fact, I can’t see why the US wouldn’t support them — except if it meant an American presence in the conflict. I don’t see why it would. Kiev seems to be holding its own at the moment. Why send signals that would undermine them? Seems counter productive to me. I would think the world is better off if Russia stays within its borders.

#8 Comment By Carney On December 23, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

The biggest source of instability, war, civil war, etc in the world is borders that don’t match the demographic lay of the land. Borders that slice through people who want to live together, and loop together people who’d prefer to live apart.

Crimea and Eastern Ukraine should probably have been left in Russian hands at the breakup of the USSR if not sooner.

That does not justify Russia’s border violations, sham election, formenting of civil war, etc.

In any case, the best practically achievable outcome at this point is probably for the US and West to allow Russia to keep Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, but for Russia to allow Ukraine to join the West (EU, NATO, etc). The years of sanctions Russia has suffered already, plus the permanent loss of the rest of Ukraine into an anti-Russian orbit, are probably punishment enough.

#9 Comment By TrueNeutral On December 24, 2016 @ 8:48 pm

Estonian Wolf: sure, if 42 million is one-third of 147 million, because those are the January 1, 2016 estimated populations of Ukraine and Russia, respectively.

Ukraine is also even poorer than Russia.

Ukraine’s total fertility rate is substantially lower than Russia’s. Russia’s TFR recently is near replacement levels, while ukraine’s TFR is consistently at the level of “a people who will cease to exist not too long from now.”

I’d love to see a more populous, fertile, confident, functional, prosperous Russia AND Ukraine, but the facts generally point to an uncertain future for Russians and a demographic and economic death spiral for Ukrainians.

Any claim that Ukraine can defend itself for long against a determined Russia is absurd.

#10 Comment By TrueNeutral On December 24, 2016 @ 8:50 pm

Carney: Russia will not lightly allow any part of Ukraine to join NATO, nor should they if they are prudent and not naive.

#11 Comment By Sergey On December 25, 2016 @ 5:50 am

First, one need to admit that it is not Russian invasion as often claimed by Ukrainian government but civil war between supporters of former President Ynukovich, and current Ukrainian goverment that came in power after illegal coup. Russia does help separatists with weapons and volunteers but majority fighters 80-90% are local Ukrainians, few are Russian volunteers, and in critical moments Russian military gets involved. Russia has little interest in occupying Ukraine, it could have done it already, it is interested in preserving influence of Ukrainian Russians who do not want to join EU and NATO and who before coup had pretty powerful Party and around 50% support among Ukrainians. Providing weapons and money to current government will just extend civil war, there are already powerful business interests who make good money on war and do not want war to end. Also current goverment found uses for war to distract population from economic trouble, see current increase in fighting just after nationalization of biggest Ukrainian bank.

#12 Comment By Yuriy On December 25, 2016 @ 11:13 pm

EstonianWolf,
In Ukraine, not only 1/3 of the population of Russia, and about the same number of tanks and weapons that remain from the Soviet Union.

Carney,
Yes, the inhabitants of the Crimea enough punished for their choice in the referendum.
Ukraine has stopped access to river water to the Crimea, the Russian electricity, which under the contract Ukraine undertook to resell the same Russian, but in Crimea. Crimean residents can not travel to other countries. Ukraine has blocked transport links with the Crimea, including food.
Now Crimea residents know what a person pays for the right to vote.

#13 Comment By Redeemed-Deplorable On December 28, 2016 @ 11:49 pm

Welll, the Ukraine gave up its nuclear MIRV’d ICBMs in exchange for what they thought was our guarantee of their territorial integrity. Considering that little unpleasantness unknown as the Holodomor, the Ukrainians might prefer a bit less Russia in their salad. Ooops, they believed Preezy Taqiyya.

We should stay out… ‘cept for giving them their nukes back, shrunk to short-range C1BMs (cross one border ballistic missiles). Equip them with an un-announced logic lock that allows them to target only Russian military assets or their state security services, or North Korea. A “No Mo NoKo” button wired to a VFW post somewhere might be dandy.

The only local thing we’d do in Ukraine is harden the sites to prevent Russian special ops from taking the silos. Other than that, hands off, install a live video feed and stock up on popcorn.

#14 Comment By Cor Dekker On January 1, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

Dear Daniel DePetris, a nice piece and well written, from an American point of view, but with a few mistakes. The point is that America, and the rest of the world don’t recognize the Crimian referendum.But according to the Ukrainian constitution, the Crimean people have the right to issue a referendum about the status of the Crimean Peninsula, and they did. 96.6% voted for reuniting with Russia.
So this referendum is absolutly vallid and therefore also the reuniting of the Crimean Peninsula and Russia

#15 Comment By Norman On January 5, 2017 @ 11:27 pm

Norm says; Military intervention isn’t the only possible interaction, and probably the least constructive and most costly. Ukraine is multicultural, the east looks toward the former Soviets,’ you pretend to pay us, we’ll pretend to work’. The west, Lutsk, Livi, Ivano, look toward Polish and European role models. Programs such as the European Marshall Plan or the current Peace Corps can help blend the competing cultures into a harmonious creative community of prosperous satisfied societies. You speak to a western Ukrainian in Russian and they answer in Ukrainian. Western Ukrainians, given the tools, will innovate on their own, where more often the easterners wait for orders from above, which might involve more corruption.