RUSSIA ROLLS, UKRAINE RECOILS
WHAT ASSISTANCE SHOULD THE US AND ITS ALLIES PROVIDE?
By Tyrus W. Cobb
February 19, 2015
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has resulted in more than 5,500 civilian and military deaths, and mass displacement of ethnic populations. A ceasefire was signed in Minsk that has been partially observed, but is fragile and unlikely to hold. Renewed fighting between separatists– augmented by extensive Russian armaments, materiel and even troops–and ill-trained and poorly armed Ukrainian forces will likely resume soon.
The rapidly deteriorating politico-military position the Ukraine faces has generated demands that the West, specifically the U.S. and its NATO allies, do something to bolster the outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian armed forces, and assist the new reform-oriented government in Kiev.
The United States and its allies face difficult questions: Should we provide lethal aid to the faltering Ukrainian armed forces in order to strengthen their capabilities to defend their territory and defeat the combined Russian and Separatist elements? If so, should those be strictly defensive weapons? Should we be providing more economic and non-military assistance?
This piece looks at the pros and cons of providing weapons and monetary/aid support to Kiev and the Ukrainian military.
The Minsk Accords and the Order of Battle in Eastern Ukraine
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany reached an accord in Minsk (also signed by the Russian Separatists) that called for the observance of a ceasefire in the combat zone, starting Feb 15. Following that, the forces were charged with the responsibility of withdrawing heavy weapons, releasing prisoners of war, and to begin working on an agreement for constitutional reform in Ukraine that would provide extensive decentralization of Kiev’s authority and more autonomy for the heavily ethnic Russian east (Donetsk basin region).
The accords will leave Russian and separatist forces largely intact in the disputed areas. Moscow has provided extensive monetary and military aid to the separatist elements, and has infiltrated sizeable combat ready elements of the Russian armed forces. The Ukrainian army is overmatched in terms of skilled soldiers, state of the art weaponry, tactics and leadership. Russia has significant advantages in geographic proximity, support by and for the insurgents, and in state of the art offensive and defensive weapons.
U.S. and NATO Options: Should we intervene? Provide more aid?
A growing chorus of voices in the West is calling for the provision of more advanced weaponry, military equipment, and monetary aid. The newly-anointed Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, has indicated that he “very much is inclined in that direction”. At the same time a number of politico-military experts strenuously oppose providing Ukraine with armaments of any type, defensive as well as offensive. They argue that doing so risks an acceleration of the conflict in that Moscow would surely counter-escalate, and in such a manner that Ukraine would be overwhelmed quickly, and the tactical situation in the eastern regions would deteriorate even more rapidly.
Advocates of arming Ukraine base their recommendations first on the moral ground that Russia has invaded and occupied the territory of a neutral country, one whose borders it pledged to recognize in the Budapest Memorandum signed after the dissolution of the USSR. The right thing to do in this instance is to come to the aid of a beleaguered country being overpowered by the application of military force by a much stronger and voracious neighbor, bent on reclaiming lands it felt were historically Russian and with heavyily ethnic Russian populations.
These “pro-interventionists” (at least in the provision of assistance) also argue that to bow to the application of force by Moscow would only further encourage President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, emboldening the “Tsar” to make similar demands and incursions elsewhere in Europe—and beyond. To get Russia to back down in this crisis requires Moscow to suffer heavy “costs”, and that means first and foremost supplying modern weaponry.
Most advocate only for the provision of “defensive” arms, although Moscow might not appreciate that distinction. The most prominent spokespersons for this viewpoint are former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and a number of former national security experts.
The recommendations to provide military weapons as well as aid generated a strong counter-response from a number of experts on strategic and military affairs. They point out that any provision of military aid to Kiev would be seen by Moscow as a declaration of war, and potentially spark a global escalation of Ukraine’s separatist conflict. They stress that the Ukrainian armed forces are not proficient in the employment of such weapons, which would likely be utilized erroneously or even fall into the separatist hands. They add that Kiev has had a succession of incompetent and corrupt leaderships, and that the current reform-oriented government has little chance of transitioning Ukraine into a viable and working democracy anytime soon. The nation is divided, broke and militarily weak.
Further, great powers do not react well when distant entities intervene in “their backyard”. For example, if Russia were to begin providing weaponry to Cuba or Venezuela, the U.S. would not view such interventions kindly. This conflict is, for Russia, one that involves its core strategic interests; for Europe and especially the U.S., this is not at that level. Thus escalation of the conflict by the West would certainly not force Moscow to consider withdrawal or even compromises, but would further drive the Kremlin to double the ante and increase its involvement and assistance, they stress.
These critics reject the argument that failing to take decisive action against Russia in this conflict is akin to acceding to Hitler’s demands made in 1938. But Russia is not Nazi Germany, a country then on the rise with growing military and economic strength, and a unified leadership. Instead, they note, Russia today is in a downward economic spiral driven by the sanctions and rapidly falling oil prices, a country facing severe demographic and ethnic problems. This is not 1938. Finally, they add that to confront Moscow so defiantly would just push Russia closer to China, end any chance for observance of current nuclear treaties, and drive Moscow to assist nations or entities such as Al Qaeda in exporting terrorism to Europe and the U.S.
Skepticism regarding the efficacy of providing arms is warranted. Even the U.S. cannot deliver weapons fast enough or train the Ukrainian armed forces in using them to push the highly sophisticated Russian forces out of eastern Ukraine.
Toward A Unfired Western Strategy
At the present there is little agreement among Western leaders regarding what steps the allies should take to counter Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine and to assist the fledging Kiev government. German Chancellor Merkel is opposed to providing weaponry to Kiev, even defensive arms. France’s President Hollande and the U.K’s Prime Minister Cameron favor some provision of weapons, but have not been precise in their recommendations. Here in the U.S., President Obama is said to lean towards providing economic assistance and furnishing defensive weaponry, although no specifics have been laid out.
So what can and should the U.S. do?
First, the U.S. and its European allies must continue the economic sanctions that are in place and gradually extend them to impact other members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle;
Second, America should take no military actions without the full agreement of its NATO allies, including the newest members such as the Baltic states.
Third, Washington should be a major donor to the economic assistance that Kiev immediately requires. The IMF/World Bank is already going forward with a major loan/assistance package. The U.S. should join in this effort.
Fourth, America should provide longer-term institution-building guidance and assistance, recognizing while such advice and help will not have a short term impact, it is vital to the longer term success of Ukraine.
Fifth, President Obama and NATO heads of government should encourage Ukrainian President Poroshenko to grant limited autonomy to the eastern region of the country—not independence or annexation by Russia. Poroshenko should also enunciate a vision for Ukraine that views the country eventually as an integral part of the European Community, but at the same time a nation that is prepared to work closely with its historic brethren in Moscow (not in any alliance, but to maintain close economic and cultural ties).
Finally, with respect to the key issue—the provision of armaments to Ukraine. I recommend that despite the dangers involved in providing defensive weaponry to Kiev–such as modern anti-tank and air defense radars and artillery–that Washington and its European allies do provide such weaponry to Ukraine. This is risky and may eventually prove counter-productive, but in view of Russia’s support and intervention in the eastern regions of Ukraine, necessary.
-Dr. Tyrus W. Cobb was a former Special Assistant to President Reagan for National Security Affairs.