Want to escalate U.S.-Russia tension? Arm Ukraine.

July 2, 2015
Members of the Ukrainian armed forces prepare a weapon at their position located near the town of Horlivka

Members of the Ukrainian armed forces prepare a weapon at their position located near the town of Horlivka, north of Donetsk, Ukraine, June 6, 2015. REUTERS/Oleksandr Klymenko

United States-Russian military tensions are exploding. On June 23 the Pentagon announced plans to station hundreds of tanks, howitzers and other armor in the Baltics and throughout other East European NATO countries. Russia meanwhile is increasing its forces in Belarus and speeding up the deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, the heavily armed Russian exclave between Poland and Lithuania.

While both the United States and Russia should step back from the brink, many Obama administration officials are pushing for a dangerous escalatory step: the shipment of billions of dollars of lethal weapons to the post-Maidan government in Ukraine.

The lobbying to arm Ukraine began in February when three of the nation’s leading think tanks released a widely-read report arguing for the United States to provide Ukraine with $3 billion of lethal arms. Since then both the Senate and House passed legislation calling for the United States to arm Ukraine, while Secretary of State Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and U.S. Air Force General and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove publicly advocated this policy. In fact, the only senior official not pushing this agenda is President Barack Obama — though the pressure on him to do so is growing.

Washington’s legion of escalation argues for “raising the costs” to Russia by increasing the number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. The Kremlin has been hiding the number of battlefield casualties in Ukraine from Russian citizens to reduce domestic opposition to the war. If the volume of casualties became public, some U.S. officials argue, Putin would have to back down from Ukraine to prevent a domestic backlash.

This rationale is logical on its face, but in practice does not account for the gap between the Russian and American stake in Ukraine. Kiev’s geopolitical orientation is supremely important to Russia, while American interests’ via-a-vis Ukraine are peripheral at best. It’s a case of “must have” for the Russians, versus “nice to have” for the United States.

If Putin’s sky-high approval ratings are anything to go by, he has successfully convinced Russia’s citizens that Ukraine is an existential issue for their country, and he cannot now retreat without undermining his political standing at home. Therefore, Putin’s likely response to an increase in Kiev’s military capabilities would be to double down on his support for the separatists. In a worst-case scenario, Russia could invade Ukraine outright. The end result would be even greater death and suffering for those living in eastern Ukraine — the exact opposite outcome that the West would like to see.

Those who still doubt Russia’s willingness to escalate should consider what happened in August, when Ukraine’s military was on the brink of routing the separatists. Putin poured Russian troops into the Donbass and inflicted a bloody defeat on the Ukrainian forces at Ilovaisk. Russian troops also played a key role helping to defeat Kiev’s forces at Debaltseve in February. These incidents show that Putin is prepared to escalate as necessary, and the “Arm Ukraine” advocates do not provide a satisfactory explanation why he would not do so again.

Russia’s geopolitical interest in Ukraine is also matched by hard power. The Russian military possesses what military strategists call “escalation dominance,” and even those in favor of arming Ukraine admit that an American-supplied Ukrainian army still cannot defeat a determined attack by the Russian military. If Kiev appears on the verge of another significant defeat, do those demanding Ukraine be armed stand down? Or do they invoke “American credibility” and demand even tougher countermeasures? How might Moscow escalate even further in return? None of the answers to these questions are clear — and neither is the endgame.

Those who support arming Kiev also overlook the possibility that Putin could choose to escalate asymmetrically, outside of Ukraine. Russia already announced its intention to begin supplying Iran with advanced surface-to-air S-300 missiles by 2016. Moscow has promised this before, but then backed down, and Putin has left himself some wiggle room by saying Moscow won’t deliver S-300s to Iran “in the near future.”

However, if the United States arms Ukraine, Putin could accelerate the delivery of S-300s to Iran, and perhaps the even more lethal S-400s as well. These missile systems would make it much harder for the United States or its allies to carry out air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, for example. Acquiring advanced weapons would strengthen the position held by Iranian hard-liners who oppose a nuclear deal with the West.

Putin also recently hinted that Russia could supply S-300s to the Assad regime in Syria. Israel would naturally worry about these systems ending up in the hands of Hezbollah, a close Assad ally and sworn enemy of Israel. A jittery Jerusalem might launch a pre-emptive strike before the S-300s are even out of their crates, and events would spiral down from there.

If Putin wants to hit the “rogue regime trifecta” Russia could expand its relationship with North Korea. Moscow and Pyongyang already announced their intentions to deepen economic and political ties under the banner of a “year of friendship.” With the pariah Kim regime determined to expand its nuclear arsenal, anything that reduces North Korea’s isolation is inimical to American interests.

Finally, there is the issue of “blowback.”

Last July, poorly trained Russian-backed separatists allegedly shot down a commercial airliner with a Russian-supplied Buk anti-aircraft missile, killing all 283 people onboard. Meanwhile, numerous privately-funded battalions fight for the post-Maidan government. Although they are nominally under the government’s control, some of the most controversial battalions — such as Azovwarn they could “bring the war to Kiev” if conditions in Ukraine do not improve.

This raises a frightening question: What if American military hardware sent to Ukraine ends up in the wrong hands? We’ve seen this story before. In the 1980s the United States supplied advanced Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and other arms to the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, the United States packed its bags and went home — but its military equipment stayed behind.

When the Soviets’ puppet regime collapsed in 1992, the country was left in the hands of warlords and armed groups. Some reports indicate that these American Stingers ended up as far afield as Iran, North Korea and Libya, while others disclosed that al Qaeda ended up with advanced American sniper rifles.

More recently, Islamic State has reportedly seized “significant quantities” of American-made weapons from Iraqi government forces and moderate Syrian rebels. As the United States engages in an ongoing campaign to degrade and destroy Islamic State, the American military must now confront its own weapons. Ukraine is certainly more stable than Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, but as history demonstrates American military aid sometimes goes missing.

While the United States should provide Ukraine political and economic support, shipping billions of dollars in lethal arms is just too risky.

 

9 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

My dear Mr. Cohen, how much are you paid by Putin? Don’t you understand that in combatting Putin’s hordes Ukrainians are defending the American values as well? Or you try to convince the reader that NATO is to be disintegrated, and the US should sleep safely and wait till Russian missiles and “green men” are stationed at the shores of NY or California? Do you want the US to lose its leading position of a stronghold of democracy in the world and thus to neglect its vital interests of the National Security? Have you forgotten the lessons of Pearl Harbor? Are you so naive or a prepaid “analyst”?

Posted by Kyiv | Report as abusive

The point is well taken that Russia has escalation dominance in Ukraine as well as a greater security stake in Ukraine. In addition, a majority of publics in NATO countries do not support sending arms to Ukraine. And astoundingly, the Pew polls also found that a majority of Germans, French, and Italians do not support NATO using force to defend allies! I hope that they understand the implication of that position for their own security as well as the credibility of the Western alliance.
And yes, Putin can escalate “outside” of Ukraine but so can the United States. While not arming Ukraine, the U.S. can nevertheless tear up the 1997 Founding Act with Russia, where the U.S. agreed not to put new military bases in new NATO states and proceed to establish a formidable military deterrent in Poland and other front line states.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

That is another way of saying “to avoid annoying Russia, just roll over and let them do what they want”.

Yeah what could possibly go wrong with that?

Will the ghost of Prime Minister Chamberlain please call his office.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

Russia is coming West whether the US supplies Ukraine or not.
The question is how far West is the breaking point? If you supply weapons to Ukraine you must have a detailed strategy to account for these weapons.
Sitting back is an option but at what cost? If you’ve arrived at the conclusion of relinquishing territory and that is satisfactory in your eyes be prepared for a massive takeover. If not, you must act accordingly. The only difference in Putin in 2015 and Hitler in the 30’s is announced persecution of a certain people. The war strategy is no different and the ultimate goal is the same.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

You posted an article above that accentuates Russia and debt level. You can go back to Germany in the 1930’s and find famine and an empowered Hitler. I have no doubt in my mind Putin is using this as a reference for the end goal. Hitler told his troops about mansions and greatness if the goal is reached. I think we are revisiting history because we know history repeats.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

What is at stake for US!Ukraine is far away.EU see differently!
Putin main concern is his people and security.Russia and Ukraine lived happily for decade and there was no problem.Putin has been deffensive all through out but at the same time he can not bow down come what may.
Obama is not the man to succumb to pressure.He studies himself every thing and in time of crisis he take his own decision.I hope everything will come out smooth depending on the position of US.
Look at how Putin has co.operated regarding WMD of Assad and with Iran regarding nuclear agreement.The situation become so explosive even a small aggressive act of US could result into a big war.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Ukraine bogey is raised by Obama to divert the attention of the world from the expansion of ISIS caliphate. Putin has repeatedly assured that Moscow has no plan to attack any country. The Kurds do not have enough arms and tanks but still fighting with a makeshift armory. Millions of pounds-worth of weapons have been bought by a number of European countries to arm the Kurds, but American commanders, who are overseeing all military operations against Isil, are blocking the arms transfers, as instructed by Obama. One of the core complaints of the Kurds is that the Iraqi army has abandoned so many weapons in the face of Isil attack, the Peshmerga are fighting modern American weaponry with out-of-date Soviet equipment. Iraqi security forces lost 2,300 Humvee armored vehicles when Islamic State overran the northern city of Mosul in June 2014, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Sunday in an interview with Iraqiya state television. Coupled with previous losses of American weapons, the conclusion is simple: The United States is effectively supplying Islamic State with tools of war the militant group cannot otherwise hope to acquire from its patrons. In addition to the Humvees, Iraqi forces previously abandoned significant types and numbers of heavy weapons to Islamic State. For example, losses to Islamic State include at least 40 M1A1 main battle tanks, as well as small arms and ammunition, including 74,000 machine guns, and as many as 52 M198 howitzer mobile gun systems. It is with this intention he did not order boots on the ground at the initial stage when ISIS was merely a ragtag rampaging terrorists without any country of their own. Now they own vast swathes of Syria, Iraq, Liby and Tunisia. The Telegraph correspondent reported that the Obama administration is blocking attempts by its Middle East allies to fly heavy weapons directly to the Kurds fighting Islamic State jihadists in Iraq, Some of America’s closest allies say Obama and other Western leaders, including Cameron, are failing to show strategic leadership over the world’s gravest security crisis for decades.

Posted by AYeshuratnam | Report as abusive

I’d like to hearfrom this forum regarding two questions. #1 How far west has Russia progressed since the collapse of the USSR? #2 How far east has NATO, the EU, and US influence progressed in this same time? Answering those two questions myself I don’t see Russia as some imperialistic juggernaught.

Posted by Ammon | Report as abusive

Putin’s demands in Ukraine are rather moderate:
– a honorable peace for the rebels
– no NATO membership for Ukraine

During the Cold War this would have been a no-brainer for Washington. Unfortunately nowadays the neocon chicken hawks are in charge and Obama is afraid that he would be blamed for such a sensible compromise.

Posted by musicmouse | Report as abusive