The US Should Not Rush to Arm Ukraine

Last weekend, a group of think tanks led by the Brookings Institution began to preview their upcoming report on why it is time for the US to arm Ukraine in its conflict with Russia in eastern Ukraine. Most of the previewers had not previously said anything on the record in favor of militarily supporting Ukraine during the past year of conflict.

Their voices were soon joined by a number of others. Timothy Garton Ash chimed in Sunday with a subtle piece in The Guardian titled “Putin must be stopped. And sometimes only guns can stop guns,” in which he helpfully referenced the think tanks’ unreleased report. Sure enough, later on Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on how the Obama Administration is rethinking its position on arming Ukraine.

By Tuesday, the think tanks had released the report, and one of its contributors, John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, went out of his way to disavow any connection to the White House’s comments, protesting that any appearance of coordination was sheer coincidence.

All of this should make us pay very, very close attention to what is being proposed.

This is not a good time to arm Ukraine. It might have been a good idea at the beginning of the conflict, but not now. But it’s also a bad idea to assume there are no strategic interests at play, as most of the critics of American military assistance to Ukraine do. Instead, the US needs a more calibrated strategic posture of confrontation that preserves American influence at a higher level.

In any event, clarity is important. Comments made during Ash Carter’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday and Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Kiev yesterday gave further reason to believe there is an imminent policy shift. And even if their comments and actions are only “noise,” that noise has consequences — particularly for how Russia will view the conflict and what next steps Putin may take. Obama, in allowing the noise to remain unanswered, seems to subscribe to the idea that some degree of “strategic ambiguity” could be useful. However, our current relationship with Russia makes it more likely that any attempt at strategic ambiguity will contribute to dangerous misperception and miscalculation.

One of the principal reasons direct military assistance to Ukraine right now is a bad idea is that Ukraine is not currently a viable state. It is on the brink of insolvency. Its economy is in tatters — not just because of the war, but from two decades of corrupt politics and missed opportunities to reform. As much as Ukrainian President Poroshenko would wish otherwise, Ukraine’s economy remains almost entirely oriented towards Russian markets, access Russia can shut off at any time.

The IMF identified a new $15 billion shortfall in Ukraine’s budget at the end of 2014 that needs to immediately be addressed to avoid insolvency; this is on top of the $17 billion already committed by the IMF to Ukraine. Additionally, Ukraine has $19 billion in existing sovereign debt payments due over the next three years, $3 billion of which is held by Russia. Negotiated by ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych, these debt instruments allow for Russia to trigger a default when Ukrainian sovereign debt exceeds 60% of GDP; it’s now at 75%. Cross default provisions in the remainder of the $19 billion in debt would cause a disastrous uncontrolled default.

Ukrainian society is also deeply riven by the conflict. Political sentiments throughout the country are not as neatly divided as Ukrainian government press would have us understand. US military assistance to unviable states — South Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Yemen — have very rarely achieved the desired objectives.

Beyond its lack of financial and political viability, Ukraine does not have the organizational capacity in its military to absorb such a rapid infusion of arms; it will not be able to responsibly maintain possession of them, let alone use them effectively. It is risky business dispersing advanced weaponry to a porous military organization and one that is both operating in parallel with paramilitary organizations outside of the chain of command and on the edge of a rapidly changing front.

Furthermore, the hour is very late for arming Ukraine. One year ago, a heavy, definitive, and unmistakable move to reinforce Ukrainian positions with a credible deterrent might have made a good deal of sense (as Amb. Bill Courtney and I argued last March).

Now, however, thousands of Russian troops have been operating inside Ukraine for many months, fighting a war that’s seen more than 5,000 people killed. Arming Ukraine now can’t deter something that has already happened. What, exactly, will the “cost imposing” strategy described by Michele Flournoy, one of the report’s authors and former Obama Administration DOD official, achieve?

As Jeremy Shapiro has pointed out in a countervailing piece from Brookings, it is pretty unlikely that the “costs” imposed on the widows and mothers of dead Russian soldiers will have much chance of a near term impact on the policies of a determined authoritarian leader who has staked his legitimacy and legacy on this war.

The fact that this concept of cost imposing strategies has been misappropriated from the literature and history of strategic competition is even more problematic for this line of reasoning. Cost imposing strategies only make sense if actors are already locked into a well-defined strategic competition.

Perhaps we should recognize how divergent Russian and American interests have become and contemplate the implications for our larger strategic posture vis a vis Russia, as many, including myself, have suggested. But we are not there now and our policies do not currently reflect a view of Russia as a strategic competitor. To abruptly use a cost imposing strategy in the current context would be dangerously confusing to Russia and many other observing nations and actors. Confusion and misperception are the most frequent causes of major conflicts — wars no one intended.

In a broader view, it would make the US look like a capricious and inchoate power, unsure of its interests and incapable of its self-appointed role as long term guarantor of pan-European security and anchor of the trans-Atlantic alliance. The US first needs to develop a cogent recognition of and domestic political consensus around how Russian and US interests are now opposed.

This would then be followed by strategic moves meant to signal this new orientation to Russia. The US could move to cut off the Russian financial system from SWIFT, as has been discussed. While an aggressive move, it would signal a lack of willingness to let Russia continue to have its cake and eat it too. If it wants to act like a strategic competitor of the West, it won’t be permitted to benefit from Western infrastructure at the same time. Russia is routinely flying nuclear bombers along the borders of, and sometimes inside, NATO members’ air space. A strategic move by the US against Russia could also involve a robust effort to counter and prevent such activities via massive shows of force or aggressive fighter escorts. While there have been efforts to increase NATO air patrols, they involve very small detachments of aircraft, at least on a relative scale; this may be having the opposite of the desired effect on Russian perceptions and behavior, suggesting a lack of serious resolve.

There are several advantages to this approach. While aggressive, it would allow for careful finessing and face-saving. It would not catch Russia by surprise and would give Moscow time to recalibrate and pull back. This approach demonstrates Western strength while addressing Russian behavior in an area where Russian interests are minimal and really only exploratory: the Russian military is simply seeing what it can get away with. It costs Putin little to have his long-range aircraft pushed back.

From this strategic level of signaling and confrontation, the US could methodically roll out an array of policies designed to further defend and advance its interests vis-à-vis Russia, pausing in each instance to observe, allow Russia to recalibrate, and respond. Maybe that process ends up with the US arming Ukraine. But the deliberate manner in which we get there would be very important.

At the same time, it is vital to recognize that the impetus to arm Ukraine is a valid one we cannot wish away and should not seek to ignore. Russia is in the process of disrupting the international order. A separatist leader in eastern Ukraine announced his intent to raise 100,000 new volunteers, which may pave the way for a massive ground intervention of conventional forces from Russia. There is no reason not to believe that Russia would next threaten the Baltics, or maybe Poland against which it gamed a nuclear attack last year. An attack on any one of these NATO allies would trigger Article 5 collective security guarantees, requiring US intervention in a hot war with Russia. Russia is shredding key constructs of the post-Cold War order. This makes the world a less predictable, more dangerous place. For everyone.

No one wants to think of an actual conflict with Russia. It is difficult and somewhat uncomfortable to imagine Russia seriously interested in threatening the US — as President Obama himself seemed to imply when he recently talked about the “undesirability” of a conflict between Russia and the US. However, hope alone, as we know, is not a great strategy. Hope that Russia is really not interested in destabilizing the pan-European region, splintering the NATO alliance, splitting Europe from the US, and gaining long term uncontested strategic leverage over European economic and strategic decision making is not enough.

Washington must do more, and quickly, to confront Putin’s aggression. Arming Ukraine in a rushed and ill-thought out manner, however, will backfire. A US policy change on arming Ukraine will likely only encourage Russia to act preemptively.

The US may think it can threaten Russia into backing down simply through escalated rhetoric and threats. It may not intend to follow through on arming Ukraine rapidly — or at all. This is the worst possibility. And, unfortunately, probably the most likely. In this instance, the US administration should immediately distance itself from any of the comments about arming Ukraine and focus instead on developing a political consensus and strategic approach to pushing back Russian influence and aggression outside of Ukraine. 

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About the Author(s)

Job Henning

Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, Co-Founder of OpenRevolution and LinkPad, Former Co-Director of the Congressional Commission, the Project on National Security Reform