Sending guns to Kyiv will only escalate the conflict
By Elizabeth Pond
Now is not the time to play to Russia’s military strength by flooding Ukraine, the world’s tenth-largest exporter of arms, with advanced Western weapons that Kiev’s armed forces have not been trained to handle.
Instead, the smart approach is to play to the West’s own strengths of soft and restrained power and hold Russia to the “Minsk package”–the truce in eastern Ukraine that Moscow has already endorsed–by linking violations to more severe financial sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s billionaire coterie.
There are three reasons for this. First, abstention from sending lethal weapons to Ukraine would help evade sleepwalking into the world’s first nuclear war. Second, it would be much cheaper to send ten executives on sabbatical from Boeing to Kiev and Kharkiv to modernize, fast, the substantial production of heavy weapons that remains from the days when Ukraine was the war smithy for the Soviet Union. Third, abstention from providing a third trough of billions of loose dollars–now that the opportunities for personal enrichment in backroom Russian gas deals and embezzled defense appropriations have dried up–would avoid tempting Ukrainian oligarchs to revert to business as usual as the shock of Russia’s year-old attack on Ukraine wears off.
True, delivering lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, as Senator John McCain, NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, and dozens of Congressional Rambos urge, would make Washington feel good. But–given the ratio of Ukraine’s 121,000 to Russia’s 771,000 active servicemen and just over 2000 Ukrainian to 20,000 Russian tanks–Western arms injections could hardly save Ukraine from further dismemberment in the undeclared war the Russians are imposing on their junior East Slav brothers. Indeed, a demonstrative influx of Western arms into Ukraine would simply force any risk-averse demurrers in the Kremlin to unite in defiance of the American bogeyman with the ultranationalists whom Putin has empowered.
Hawks in the West are already starting to say that this moment of political uncertainty in the Kremlin is precisely the time to pump modern weapons into Ukraine to show Moscow that the United States is not feckless. Yet they tacitly admit–in a rejection of putting Western boots on the ground in non-NATO Ukraine that is as firm as President Barack Obama’s–that Moscow holds “escalation dominance” in its own backyard. As US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained colloquially in defending Obama’s skepticism about funneling lethal weapons to Kiev, “Anything we did as countries in terms of military support for Ukraine is likely to be matched and then doubled and tripled and quadrupled by Russia.” Or, as policy wonks explain the same phenomenon, not only does Russia enjoy escalation dominance as the regional military giant that can instantly trump each Western military initiative in any upward spiral. It also flaunts its will to up the ante at every stage because of its claims to an existential geopolitical interest in next-door Ukraine that trumps the distant West’s half-hearted interest.
Where Western hawks fail the sobriety test is in not following the logic of their own tacit admission by specifying how they would respond in the next weeks and months if a game of chicken proceeds on Russian rules and Moscow keeps raising the stakes all the way up to the nuclear level, as Putin has repeatedly threatened to do. Hawks never say whether they would really risk sleepwalking into Armageddon over a peripheral interest in a scary era when even the rudimentary mutual rules of restraint worked out by the superpowers in the original Cold War have expired.
But is the alternative policy advocated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel–“strategic patience” in countering Russia’s breach of international law and the seven-decade taboo on changing Europe’s borders by force-really feasible? Is there a golden mean that helps Ukraine but does not taunt Moscow into another military tantrum?
Fortunately, yes. The West’s surprisingly effective sanctions have already exacerbated plunging oil prices to produce record capital flight in Russia, an abrupt halt to crucial Western investment and technology transfer, 20% inflation, and a GDP drop of up to 6 percent this year. For the first time since Putin rose to power on the basis of high oil revenues and a social compact of restoring order after Russia’s post-Soviet chaos and building a new urban consumer class, Putin now faces growing impoverishment in Russia. He cannot forever compensate for this concrete drop in living standards by appealing to abstract Great Russian glory and sacrificing the lives of ever-more Russian soldiers to a war in Ukraine that he claims not to be waging. Time, which last year favored Putin’s improvisational military faits accomplis, may this year begin to favor the West’s strategic soft power of prosperity and stability.
To be sure, the potential transmission belt from general impoverishment to political moderation is not obvious. A population inured to fatalism over centuries is unlikely to revolt. The Russian elites have only a weak liberal impulse. And all nascent Kremlin factions of kleptocrats and brass-knuckle enforcers unite so far in outrage over Russia’s loss of empire in the Soviet implosion of 1991 that Putin calls the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.
What might in the future, however, divide the oligarchs from the enforcers–or the clans of enforcers from each other–is the public blame that ultranationalists already heap on Putin for his timidity in not finishing the military conquest of eastern Ukraine and the private fears that more cautious cronies may nurse about Putin’s “adventurism,” to use the classic Soviet term for dangerous goading of the more powerful West.
In this constellation, German–and therefore European–policy is to seek tacit mutual acceptance of relatively stable de-escalation that could brake any incremental spiral to unintended nuclear war. To keep up the pressure, Merkel has already changed the European agenda from easing financial sanctions by summer if Russia does not seize more Ukrainian territory before then to strengthening sanctions if Russia violates the ceasefire before the end of the year.
This makes more sense than sending sophisticated Western weapons to Kiev that would require months of training before Ukrainian forces could use them, and would risk their capture by Russians. The West stands to gain far more by helping the Ukrainians to maximize their own substantial arms production. Ukraine still turns out solid Soviet-era tanks and missiles (and exports spare parts to Russia, oddly enough, to keep Moscow’s warplanes and helicopters flying). The tanks may not match the high tech of the West’s Leopards or Abrams. But Ukrainian soldiers know how to operate them, and they are suited to the kind of hybrid war in which the Russians avoid close air support for their professional soldiers and mercenaries in eastern Ukraine in order to maintain the deniability of their crucial role in the war.
The US Congress should certainly keep the threat of delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine on the docket. NATO should continue to demonstrate its determination to defend all alliance members (and, tacitly, Sweden and Finland), by conducting joint exercises in the Baltic states and Poland and intercepting Russian bombers flying in European airliner zones with their transponders shut down. It should continue to train Ukrainian forces and conduct modest joint military maneuvers in western Ukraine under the “distinctive partnership” that NATO granted Kiev as a consolation prize in the 1990s, when the alliance signed a grander “Founding Act” with Russia. It should use the timing and intensity of war gaming to signal responses to Russian threats or overtures.
The West should further nudge Kiev to replace the top dysfunctional command of the Ukrainian army and promote the majors and captains who have already had extensive training in the West.
It should upgrade Ukraine’s existing heavy weapons by providing enough unarmed surveillance drones and intelligence and electronics to facilitate real-time targeting and counteract Russian jamming of Ukrainian communications in the east. It should insist on Russian compliance with the Minsk truce –including the provision for Kiev’s control of Ukraine’s own borders in the east by the end of 2015–as a prerequisite for easing sanctions. And it should broaden the sanctions if the Russian Goliath, despite the ceasefire, powers its way through the Ukrainian Davids defending Mariupol and Kharkiv in a bid to partition Ukraine and shut out Kiev from control of the east. It should also use all its influence to promote urgent economic reform in Ukraine–and bar Ukrainian oligarchs from divvying up state wealth in the forthcoming round of privatization and rescue funds from the International Monetary Fund.
Above all, the West should help Russia’s rulers recognize their own internal “contradictions” (to borrow another apt Soviet term) and abrade the hardliners’ grip in the Kremlin. And it should help all the latent Kremlin factions realize that Putin is incurring very high costs in his adventurism. He lost all of Ukraine as a client state after his protégé, then President Viktor Yanukovych, hadpeaceful pro-European demonstrators shot on Euromaidan Square a year ago and had to flee to Russian exile. He lost most of “Novorossiya,” Putin’s anachronistic name for the eastern third of Ukraine, when the masses there failed to follow Russian military agitators and rise in rebellion against Kiev. By now he has preserved only a Crimea that is a drain on Moscow’s budget and the desolate war ruins of half of the Donbas.
More broadly, Putin has brought growing turmoil to the Caucasus, overstretch to the Russian army, as a recent RUSI analysis documents, and a rising toll of “Cargo 200” military corpses in Ukraine that the army is doing its best to keep secret. By his threats he has revived a moribund NATO, and he has bestowed on the Ukrainians a new sense of consolidated non-Russian identity. He now administers a Russia that is, yet again, in secular decline.
What the West should do at this stage, then, is to trust the efficacy of sanctions and Russia’s own resolution of “contradictions”. What it should not do is to play Vladimir Putin’s game by rushing to export lethal weapons to Ukraine.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of several books on Germany, Europe, and the Balkans.
This essay appeared in a shorter version in The World Today, Chatham House, April/May 2015