How to arm Ukraine without starting World War Three

February 18, 2015
Members of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic army collect parts of a destroyed Ukrainian army tank in the town of Vuhlehirsk, west of Debaltseve

Members of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic army collect parts of a destroyed Ukrainian army tank in Vuhlehirsk, about 10 km (6 miles) west of Debaltseve, February 16, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

This piece was updated late Feb. 18.

The Feb. 12 Minsk II Ukrainian ceasefire agreement brokered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a fragile arrangement. Most analysts hold modest expectations. The past few days are proving them right.

Separatist and Russian forces continued their attack on Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve — despite the ceasefire that supposedly took effect on Saturday — and captured the town on Wednesday. Meanwhile Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman has claimed that Moscow is not part of the conflict or the agreement.

President Barack Obama and other Western leaders continue to hope that the ceasefire will take hold. Yet it is harder to believe that the agreement will last than was the case last week. If Minsk II unravels, as did the first Minsk ceasefire of last September, pressure will likely grow on the White House to provide greater military assistance — including defensive arms — to Ukraine.

A military boot is seen at the road near Debaltseve

A military boot at the road near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, February 17, 2015. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

I joined with seven other former U.S. officials two weeks ago to advocate that Washington needed to provide significant military assistance to Ukraine. Our report, Preserving Ukraine’s Independence; Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do, explained that most of this assistance would be nonlethal, such as radars to pinpoint the origin of enemy rocket and artillery fire. But with one major exception: light anti-armor weapons to help the Ukrainians confront the tanks and other armored vehicles that Moscow has poured into eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian army could have put those weapons to good use at Debaltseve.

Such military assistance would fulfill Washington’s commitment to Ukraine under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances — a key part of the arrangement under which Ukraine agreed to give up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. The specific goal would be to increase the Ukrainian army’s ability to defend against Russian attack and, by raising the costs of aggression, dissuade Moscow from further fighting. The point now is to encourage the Kremlin to seriously seek a negotiated political settlement.

Over the past two weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly told members of Congress that he supports arming Ukraine, something that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter endorsed during his recent Senate confirmation hearing. Obama, however, has thus far taken a cautious approach.

This is not a “slam-dunk” decision. It’s a 60 percent-40 percent or even 55 percent-45 percent call. But inaction presents more risks than assisting Ukraine’s military.

First is the real possibility that the fighting and bloodshed will go on. Though the Russian army has reportedly suffered hundreds of casualties, something the Kremlin has taken great pains to hide from the Russian people, it fights on. Moscow apparently considers the cost of this conflict sustainable.

Second, to the extent that Moscow concludes that the hybrid warfare it has carried out in Ukraine is a successful tactic, it may well be tempted to apply it elsewhere. The Kremlin claims a right to defend ethnic Russians and Russian speakers  wherever they live and whatever their citizenship. What happens if Moscow were to try hybrid warfare in Estonia or Latvia, in “defense” of the ethnic Russian populations there?  Those countries are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that the United States has an obligation to defend.

Members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic stand on top of mobile artillery outside the town of Vuhlehirsk near Donetsk

Members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic on mobile artillery outside of Vuhlehirsk near Donetsk, Ukraine, February 14, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Critics of providing defensive arms have offered a number of reasons why Washington should not do it.  Let’s consider their main arguments.

Some assert that arming Ukraine would launch an inexorable slide culminating in U.S.-Russia war — even a nuclear conflict. Why? Providing anti-armor weapons does not automatically mean providing F-16s or the 82nd Airborne.  Our report did not recommend U.S. troops, and the Ukrainians did not ask for them.  Kiev also did not ask for offensive weapons. The Ukrainian army is hardly likely to march on Russia led by man-portable antitank missiles.

Washington can calibrate and control the level of military assistance. The limits should be made clear with Kiev in private, but the U.S. government can assuredly build in the necessary firebreaks on American involvement.

Critics also worry that, if the United States provides defensive arms to Ukraine, Russia would escalate. They argue that Russia cares more about Ukraine than does the West. Which is true. But those critics usually omit a key factor in the equation: Ukraine.

It is not just an object in a Russia-West tug of war. Ukraine gets a say and appears to care every bit as much — and more — about its own future.

Critics assume, moreover, that escalation would be an easy call for the Kremlin.  It might not be that simple. Escalation would almost certainly require more overt involvement by regular Russian army units in a way that would be difficult for Moscow to hide or deny.

That raises problems for the Kremlin and Putin. Opinion polls show that most Russians do not want their army fighting in Ukraine. The more they see of the conflict, and the more casualties that result, the more likely that their support for Putin’s war would erode.

The Russian president does not appear to care much about dead Russian soldiers. But he does care a great deal about their impact on his public standing.

More overt Russian army involvement also would be more visible to the outside world. That would only bolster support in Europe and elsewhere for maintaining sanctions and adding more biting measures that would further damage the Russian economy.

Other critics claim that providing Ukraine defensive arms would end the cooperation that has developed between the United States and Europe. They can offer no evidence to support this, however. Merkel does not favor supplying arms, but she had ample opportunity during her Feb. 9 Washington visit to warn that doing so would disrupt transatlantic unity. She did not.

Some NATO allies, moreover, would likely provide arms to Ukraine if Washington did so. They include Poland, the Baltic states, Canada and perhaps Britain. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond last week ruled out arms “for the time being.” But he also suggested that Britain would not sit by as the Ukrainian army collapsed.

Providing military assistance and defensive arms to Ukraine is not risk free. But if Minsk II falls apart and the fighting grows, that would engender major risks as well — not only to Ukraine, but to other Russian neighbors if Moscow sees hybrid warfare as a winning tactic.

The provision of military assistance is not intended as a stand-alone policy. It is a piece of an overall strategy that consists of Western financial support to sustain Ukraine (provided that Kiev can pursue serious economic reforms) and economic sanctions on Russia designed to effect a change in Moscow’s policy toward Ukraine. By taking from Russia the military option, or the inexpensive military option, arming Ukraine aims, like sanctions, to get the Kremlin to seriously seek a political settlement.

Holding open the prospect of a political settlement that can address Russian and Ukrainian interests is the last key piece of the strategy. A settlement, however, needs a willing Russian partner prepared to accept a reasonable outcome. Putin tried to play the statesman in Minsk. As his army assists separatists in taking Debaltseve and Minsk II appears to unravel, what’s left of any confidence in his good faith comes increasingly into question.

Obama should now consider providing Ukraine more military assistance and defensive arms, with the goal of turning Moscow back to the real effort at finding peace. Though that action carries risks, inaction presents a more hazardous course.


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Giving more weapons to Poroshenko won’t help much, he’s running out of troops willing to fight his stupid civil war. Maybe Pifer will go fight, I’ll buy him a plane ticket and a Azov patch.

Posted by hapaxlegomenon | Report as abusive

Yep intervene send weapons makes a mockery of own sanctions, we can support but you can’t message?

PS. manpads are offensive weapons arguing ‘The Ukrainian army is hardly likely to march on Russia led by man-portable antitank missiles’ is just trying to belittle the subject (they also wouldn’t march on Russia without them either).

The Ukraine doesn’t lack weaponry, openly adding more into the mix simply gives Russia (and any other party) an open door to increase support with Modern weaponry too.

Posted by StigTW | Report as abusive

Or we cold retitle the aticle: How to Profit by selling Arms.

Posted by SR37212 | Report as abusive

Or we cold retitle the article: How to Profit by selling Arms.

Posted by SR37212 | Report as abusive

Support your viewpoint, but you have not covered the most likely event, the Russian supported separatist forces take Debaltseve, ceasefire and hold their line for a couple of weeks/months (whilst agitating in Mariupol and re-arming ) and then start again.
Do we arm Ukraine now or wait for another cycle of violence and death ?

Posted by TonyoUK | Report as abusive

More silly hawkish talk that ignores the facts and is paraded as the absolute truth. Over 50% of the country do not want ruled by the current clique in Kiev. But there voice was silenced by the US led coup, so now the other 50% rule. Its a simple matter of the US stops interfering in other nations decisions which are nothing more than control and actually practise what they preach. In every country the US have interfered with the outcome is always chaos. The writer is aware of this but still spouts the same party line that always comes out of Washington. The one basic fact is. If the US led coup had not happened we would not have Russian troops in Crimea or Ukraine. An election could then have taken place in 2015 and the people (all of the people) could have decide there own future.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

The timing is now right to provide military assistance to Ukraine. Merkel and Hollande brokered a deal that may hold up in the long run, while Putin has very clearly showed the past days that he intends to push on with his offensive as long as there are easy land gains to be had. The only things that will change his calculus are Russian lives lost and the truth leaking out to the Russian public – That Russia is waging war on their Slavic brothers.

Give the Ukrainians means to defend themselves and support them economically while pressuring them to eradicate corruption.

Russia will not go to open war with the west because Putin knows that will lead to utter defeat.

Posted by AndreasJ | Report as abusive

We shouldn’t stand back and watch that mrfr putin taking whatever he wants. That russian scum needs to be put back behind its borders and kept there tightly sealed.

Posted by kokesh | Report as abusive

Obama’s “cautious approach” = doing as little as possible to avoid being accused of doing nothing.

Obama is a joke. He’s the single weakest “Commander-In-Chief” that this country has ever had.

Every American who voted for him should be ashamed.

Posted by Danram | Report as abusive

Dear kokesh

Re: “scum”.

Dear Mr. McCain

Your artillery war is over.

The US economy does not run on death anymore.

The energy that you devote to obtain wealth through death on behalf of United States citizens and al lied nations: Will be better spent on Life Eternal in the face of rapid accelerated climate change.

On behalf of The All of The Citizens of Our World: Who We Love.

Welcome to the New World Order of Truth.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

Elephant in the room: nuclear weapons will be used whether you appease Russia or not.

Only liars and wicked people will disagree, Putin already started the war. It’s only a matter of time when terrorists, and China aligns with Russia and there you have World War X.

Obama (and future presidents) are you waiting for terrorists and allies of Russia to nuke the homeland before you act? By then you would have lost half of you allies, because although righteous they perceive that you are weak. And they have to survive somehow.

JUST SEND THOSE PLANNED DEFENSIVE WEAPONS TO UKRAINE ALREADY – anti-tank, anti-jamming and artillery radar!!!

Posted by Critic13 | Report as abusive

Simply put made in Ukraine labels on all weapons supplied to them.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

And still we ignore Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. Russia has already proven that this new hybrid war is working for them. Quite well, in fact.

Posted by DennisMyers | Report as abusive

two decisions, one arming Osama Bin Laden just to fight Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the other invasion of Iraq, influenced by similar shouting we are hearing “arm Ukraine” resulted in the world becoming more miserable, causing chaos and uncertainty, millions killed or maimed and become invalids, created so many widows who are forced to become prostitutes to support themselves, children orphaned, cities destroyed, trillions of dollars and other priceless treasures lost.. all because someone wanted to teach the other a lesson. Can anyone who has support arming Ukraine reverse the consequences once the lives of millions are lost, maimed ? To prove one’s superiority do we necessarily plunder and kill others? Is more killing a better option than less death?

Posted by vnsth | Report as abusive

First NATO & the US mis read the situation. Second the Eastern breakaways are more of a civil conflict that neither side wants to indulge. Third is Russia wanted to there has been plenty of time to move major combat units that has not happened. Russia wants a buffer zone and the Eastern breakaways want autonomy.
Now the foolish big talk can stop and the conversation can begin. Lets say Putin has a point. The collapse of the Soviet Union did leave out a lot of ethnic areas that would have been joined were separated due to oversight. Now is a very good time to re visit these and see if rejoining split territories can be achieved politically peacefully and retain economic ties. It would be very good to prevent any more wasteful anxieties or misunderstandings. All would profit. A strong Eastern Europe with a growing economy would be a boon to Europe and Russia.

Posted by vxx | Report as abusive

Give Putin a Bloody nose, accidentally……. then supply any and all weapons needed to send the pretty boy’s army back to Siberia.

Posted by Amwatching2c | Report as abusive

I think author of this articles deserves some prize in debating skills.

Beyond that, this article has little merit considering – this regional conflict started by rogue US under the guise of trade/economy under the covers of USAID agency that caters about $30B US tax payer dollars to mostly creating conditions of war for arm sales, service contracts and long term medical care. Stationing US led NATO at Russian border and supplying with US arms to fight Russian aligned forces will guarantee a deadlock of mutual destruction as some of these folks that have gone mental in pushing toward the arms/sanctions/NATO/threats don’t seem to know the difference between messing with a small guy vs. messing with the one that brings assured destruction.

Syria should serve as a good example of unwinnable war with both US and Russia carrying out the proxy war while the locals pay dearly. Ukraine is the same exact proxy-war that US created – only this time, to bring greater and accelerated magnitude of fiasco, ruined relations and a power deadlock that guarantees destruction on both sides.

Swallowing the pride and toning-down on the rhetoric will do some good.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

The alternative is as easy as A-B-C:

Attack/expose the pro-Russian propagandists and media.
Boost support for Putin opposition, like Navalny, Khodorkovsky, Kasparov.
Crush Syria.

Posted by Critic13 | Report as abusive

RU trolls below are happy to discuss opinion of ex-ambassador to Ukraine: “In every country the US have interfered with the outcome is always chaos.”

+2с – Ukrainians are fighting in their homeland against Russian aggression. Putin, what do you do in Ukraine?

Posted by tobto | Report as abusive

Why don’t you put on your army uniform and your boots and go and save a Nazi regime?

Posted by eleni5874 | Report as abusive

While the U.S. and NATO dawdles and thinks about arming Ukraine, the Russian army and their rebel lackeys are quickly achieving their objectives. Since NATO isn’t involved and the Russians claim they aren’t, why not just destroy advancing Russian tanks and armor with NATO drones and missles that we haven’t deployed. Putin shouldn’t be the only gamer in this, and his country has to lose some soldiers to stop his naked aggression.

Posted by bsels | Report as abusive

How to arm Ukraine without starting World War Three:

Just drop a bunch of ISIS militants in Ukraine, so all the Ukranian and Russian drunks have someone else to shoot at for a while. Everyone hates ISIS. If America and Iran can suddenly find common ground, so can these pasty Chernobyl mutants.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Very good article. Thank you and let us hope that Obama will do the right thing. Very sad to see the number of trolls here too. They are in all readers’ forums in all languages.

Posted by PHIBK | Report as abusive

Mott echoes the Kremlin line about an alleged $30 billion US aid in “creating conditions of war.”

This was for a wide range of peaceful purposes such as scientific exchange, community healthcare, education, nonprofit management, and so on. All part of a comprehensive program of helping the people of Ukraine create a civil society, with thriving non-governmental institutions — something which, for some reason, they seem to have not developed under Soviet rule.

Of course maybe that’s exactly what they do not want there. Such a society cannot so easily be ruled the traditional Russian way, by the knout.

Posted by RobertTee | Report as abusive

this all makes me wonder . . .

can obama see putin from his window yet?

keevan d. morgan, esq., chicago

Posted by oakhill1863 | Report as abusive

Putin will be driving along his new, former Ukrainian coast before the end of 2016. Surprise, you’re land locked.

Posted by Discovery451 | Report as abusive

First the US superpower with its NATO/EU coalition have failed in two wars that have been going on for longer than a decade. Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of these two forays have cost the United States. 4,487 American lives, 32,223 wounded for Iraqi Operation Freedom, Operation New Dawn another 66 deaths, and 301 wounded. 2343 deaths in Afghanistan, and wounded 17,674. The financial cost is at about $5 Trillion, plus interest borrowed on the War debt is still to be calculated, and Afghanistan isn’t over in lives and cost. With a debt in the US approaching $18 Trillion.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

The United States currently provides about 25 percent of these NATO common-funded budgets, and will continue to do so after the addition of the new members. source NATO
NATO countries fail to follow through on commitments to spend 2 percent of their nations’ gross domestic product on defense. Only four NATO nations meet that threshold: the U.S., Britain, Greece and Estonia.
So the other 24 Nations fail in this.
*At present, NATO has 28 members. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the Alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The other member countries are: Greece and Turkey (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia (2004), and Albania and Croatia (2009).

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

*At present, NATO has 28 members. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the Alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The other member countries are: Greece and Turkey (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia (2004), and Albania and Croatia (2009).
The United States currently provides about 25 percent of these NATO common-funded budgets, and will continue to do so after the addition of the new members. source NATO

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

So these NATO nations are drains on the US budget, along with UN budgets for peacekeeping. This costs damn US citizens of the with debt, and interest to pay on that debt. For generations, generations, and generations with out jobs, security, or a livable future. Printing US dollars now to float the debt, and delaying the inevitable collapse of the US. The United States is great danger, due to these costs of foreign adventurism without any national interest.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Expecting “good faith” from a thug like Putin is absurd. All you can do is make his military adventures as costly as possible. Ironically, the Chinese are doing just that. While Putin plays his games in the West, the Chinese expand deep into Russia’s Far Eastern territories.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Ukraine and other Baltic countries should look to Israel as an example…Compulsory military conscription, or drafting should be introduced….Ukraine should develop and manufacture its own independent weapons industry….manufacture of rocket launchers, drones, rifles, antitank Bazookas and military weapons should start as soon as possible….or Ukraine and other Baltic countries should have a joint co-op manufacturing weapons manufacturing industry….only then will Ukraine and other Baltic countries be self reliant….?

Posted by michael2014 | Report as abusive

Dither while they die,
Putin tells a lie,
Maybe one more try 194756 -tell-fears-being-sent-ukraine-122703194 .html  /presidents-visit-exhibition-and-walk-f or-peace-and-freedom-381545.html

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

You can sell the “Evil Putin/Russia” spiel to the uninformed, the majority of the informed readership aren’t lost on the brutal and lethal nature of Russian policy, but to be fair this plays into the hands of those unscrupulous enough to seek some financial gain in the turmoil and suffering inflicted by short list of elite and their detestable sycophantic court.
A more compendious narative would explain the economic/trade and diplomatic opportunities squandered by a lack of long term policy that would benefit both the Russian and Western peoples at a time, and in past circumstances, when the world economy was sluggish or declining, those who had a voice in setting foreign policy succumbed to near term advantage among their respective circles of influence.

It’s what is left after all the White House and State dept. press releases that matters.
Regardless of what gets said the facts on the ground remain; The Ukranian people are suffering economic and civil strife, the Russain population have to suffer the effects of our dictating sanction policies on Russia, EU member states have to struggle (at a very critical economic juncture) with the loss of trade with Russia.

Our entire global economy is stagnant or reversing due to the pernicious effects of finance and their paramount needs. Add to this the geo-political embarrassment we’re hoping to avoid with respect to our short sighted foreign policy, and we find ourselves being entertained by some strangely flat perspectives.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

arming against might of Russia? like arming Nicaragua/Cuba,Venezuela against USA…moronic premise of argument

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive