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The Enormous Folly of Arming Ukraine

Casey Michel responds [1] to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s case against arming Ukraine [2]. This is the core of his argument, and it is remarkably unpersuasive:

Just like the current sanctions regime, which signals a Western unity in the face of Russian revanchism, the delivery of anti-tank weaponry to Kiev would signal America’s commitment to the post-Cold War European order and its international norms, which Moscow continues to threaten.

In other words, there is no compelling military reason to do this, and no U.S. security interests are advanced by it, but it sends a “signal.” That is not a good enough reason to provide weapons to one side in an ongoing conflict. As the Post reported last week, sending the Ukrainian government anti-tank missiles doesn’t make much sense [3]:

But it remains unclear what, if anything, the delivery of an unknown number of Javelins could do to alter a battle that has mostly been relegated to artillery bombardment and nighttime skirmishes in no man’s land.


“This idea doesn’t flow from a policy or strategy” and may point to a political decision rather than military necessity, said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Ukrainian conflict and a senior fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.

The only reason to provide these weapons is if the U.S. wants to encourage Ukraine’s government to go on the offensive. Leonid Bershidsky explained [4] this last week:

Two years after both sides have largely kept to existing demarcation lines (minor encroachments aside), it is militarily unnecessary to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons unless the U.S. wants to encourage it to try to reclaim the “people’s republics.” [bold mine-DL] That would be a mistake. Though Russia doesn’t have enough resources to take over and hold Ukraine while still staying on the lookout for other military threats, it has plenty of money, firepower and determination to defend the separatist statelets. Giving them up would mean the end of Putin’s aura of invincibility, leaving him vulnerable at home and overseas.

Charles Kupchan made [5] a similar point about this yesterday:

But the result would likely be the opposite — an escalation in the conflict that would lead to further losses of Ukraine’s territory and compromise its political stability. Russia enjoys insurmountable military superiority over Ukraine. The United States should not encourage Ukraine to engage in an escalatory confrontation with Russia. Washington knows full well that Ukraine cannot prevail.

While supporters of arming Ukraine want to send a “signal” of commitment to European order by “raising the cost” for Russia (i.e., killing Russians), the effect would be to cause more instability and violence mostly at Ukraine’s expense. If this is what constitutes “help” for Ukraine, Ukraine is better off without it. On top of that, our major European allies are opposed to this option, because they fear the escalation of the conflict that would likely follow from it. It is more than a little ridiculous for the U.S. to take actions in defense of “European order” that most Europeans oppose. Far from demonstrating “Western unity,” sending arms to Ukraine would highlight sharp disagreements within the alliance about how to respond to the conflict. Indeed, what unity there is on Ukraine could be jeopardized if the U.S. went ahead over the objections of our allies. Kupchan comments on this as well:

Europeans are already on edge due to Congress’s recent sanctions legislation, which imposes measures not coordinated with the European Union and that have the potential to cause undue harm to European companies. If Washington decides to head off on its own and send lethal weapons to Ukraine, solidarity on Ukraine may well come to end.

There is also potential danger for the U.S. and its allies in doing this:

Russia’s response to scattering Javelins among Ukrainian ground forces should factor into the decision, Kofman said.

“The Russians have a very clear policy of reciprocity, as we saw in the recent diplomatic purge. They see this as a premise of the U.S. wanting to kill Russians,” Kofman said.

“The answer to this won’t come in Ukraine.”

If the U.S. sends weapons with the intent of “raising the cost” for Russia in Ukraine (i.e., killing their soldiers and proxies), Russia could do the same thing to endanger U.S. forces in Syria, Afghanistan, or elsewhere. If the U.S. is going to risk that sort of reaction, there has to be a much more compelling reason than sending a “signal.” There isn’t one, and that’s why arming Ukraine [6] would be an act of stupendous folly.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "The Enormous Folly of Arming Ukraine"

#1 Comment By James Hartwick On August 8, 2017 @ 10:28 am

“The answer to this won’t come in Ukraine.”

Reports are that Russia has been increasing its involvement with the Taliban, as well as being more active in its relationships with the Afghan government and with Pakistan.

#2 Comment By SteveM On August 8, 2017 @ 11:13 am

The larger subtext is that Ukraine was a corrupt crony-infested mess before Maidan.

In 2013 Ukraine per capita GDP was one-third that of Russia and Poland and even only one-half that of Belarus. So where was the United States in attempting to help fix that? No place. Because unbelievably, China is now the go-to source for foreign commercial and infrastructure assistance and investment.

The U.S. now deals in weapons of war and little else. Political Washington is a death cult.

#3 Comment By Chris Chuba On August 8, 2017 @ 1:03 pm

“Russia could do the same thing to endanger U.S. forces in Syria, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.”

The couch warriors in Congress and in Think Tanks have selective memories of the Cold War that they love so much. They forget about Vietnam were so many U.S. soldiers died with Russian made AK-47’s and many of our aircraft were shot down with SAM missiles. Korea was even bloodier on a per year basis.

1. Contrary to propaganda, there is no evidence that the Russians are arming the Taliban. They are actually helping the standing Afghanistan govt keep some of their Russian made aircraft operable.

2. Russia under Putin will not help kill Americans gratuitously. However, if we put U.S. soldiers in harms way in a manner that directly threatens there interests after arming Ukraine with lethal weaponry designed to ‘increase the cost to Russia’, this would definitely be on the table.

Syria – definitely a potential flash point. We are constantly attacking Syrian aligned forces. Russia could give them artillery or air defense.

Venezuela – Russia could give their govt lethal arms to resist U.S. intervention. They have some economic interests there.

Cold Wars are a two way street.

#4 Comment By Uncle Billy On August 8, 2017 @ 3:01 pm

Some of the crazier neocons actually want to put US troops on the ground in Ukraine, close to the Ukraine-Russia border to serve as a tripwire, like the US troops in South Korea on the DMZ. This is insanity. The very though of the United States engaging in a ground war in Ukraine with Russia sounds like something a neocon on meth would come up with. No thanks. When the Russians start landing troops on the banks of the Potomac, I will get concerned, Ukraine is a former Soviet Republic. It is not our problem.

#5 Comment By Taras77 On August 8, 2017 @ 6:22 pm

“that’s why arming Ukraine would be an act of stupendous folly.”

It seems that is about all our govt can do-commit acts of stupendous folly. Meanwhile, the world watches in horror and disbelief, wondering when in the hell some semblance of rational thought will edge into the disfunctional govt and its neo con think tankers.

#6 Comment By Tiktaalik On August 9, 2017 @ 1:33 am

>>If the U.S. sends weapons with the intent of “raising the cost” for Russia in Ukraine (i.e., killing their soldiers and proxies), Russia could do the same thing to endanger U.S. forces in Syria, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.

Don’t forget N.Korea either…

#7 Comment By Robert On August 9, 2017 @ 10:36 am

Russia annexed Crimea – no one died, referendum found ~95% of population in favour of separation. Even 50% of Ukrainian soldiers stationed in Crimea were so upset with new gov. policies that they defected to Russia. In 2014, US State Department Gallup Poll found 85% in favour. Year later, German polling co. found 92% in favour of joining Russia.

Russia did not annex Eastern Ukraine and rejected calls from separatists that it annex. Ukraine sent in tanks to negotiate, tanks greeted with flowers and refused to open fire on own people. Still no negotiations. Ukraine sent in neo-Nazi brigades with weapons blazing to negotiate.
Russia sent in “volunteers” and weapons to stop slaughter. 10,000 Ukrainians and Russians dead. Ukraine signed ceasefire agreement to hold referendum, and is still delaying implementing it.
US was a signatory to the Minsk agreements, and it would make more sense for US to be a peace maker and pressure Ukraine to hold a referendum, than to escalate by providing Ukrainians with more sophisticated weapons.

#8 Comment By sid_finster On August 9, 2017 @ 11:38 am

Considering that Russia has a lot more to lose than the United States from a resurgent Taliban, the “Russia is arming the Taliban” is the stupidest excuse for losing a war that the generals have come up with yet.

#9 Comment By sid_finster On August 9, 2017 @ 11:39 am

@Robert: what you write is entirely sane and sensible, and therefore any suggestion to that effect would be greeted with howls of derision from the neocons infesting Washington.

#10 Comment By Jim Reed On August 9, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

Great article. I was in Simferopol (Crimea) and in Lugansk in 2012. Going down the road from the airport to the city in Simferopol, 10 miles, most of it the road had a low wall bordering it.On the wall someone had spray-painted “Soyuz” (meaning “union” (with Russia)) every 100 feet. There was a small pro-Russia demonstration in the city center every day. When you went to market, any market, the sellers would say, for example,”Ruble, 50″ or “20 rubles” for the item. They would not use the Ukrainian terms, even though we were exchanging Ukrainian grivnas. Also they used such Russian money terminology in Lugansk.

I saw on Youtube, a picture of a kiosk I got some French fries at, outside the bus station in Lugansk. It is rubble now. I sent some money to my lady acquaintance to get the heck out of Dodge (Lugansk) and flee with her two little kids (it’s not a scam I was with the kids several times).

I must say I am ashamed to be an American, from a country that caused the overthrow of a legitimately-elected government, but more so because it sowed civic hatred between two similar Slavic peoples who have been intermingled, integrated and intermarried for several generations now.