Providing Targeted Military Aid to Ukraine Actually Reduces the Risk of an Expanded War

Deterrence Versus Punishment: Sanctions are No Longer Enough

In 2014, in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the onset of armed conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region, the West’s imposition of targeted economic sanctions seemed at the time to be a prudent and measured response to the Putin regime’s behavior towards Ukraine. Unfortunately, recent events have made clear that sanctions alone are not sufficient to achieve the desired results. In fact, it can be argued that while sanctions have been painful for Russia, they have in some respects been counter-productive. A change in strategy is in order.

Impact of Sanctions

On the one hand, the one-two punch of Western economic sanctions and the massive drop in oil prices have had a devastating impact on the Russian economy. On the other hand:

  • One unintended consequence of sanctions is that their imposition has served to reinforce the “Us-versus-Them” xenophobic nationalist narrative that Putin has used to whip up support among the Russian people.
  • While Western sanctions have punished Russia, their imposition has not DETERRED further aggression by Russia and its proxy forces in Ukraine.
  • Sanctions may have actually compelled an enraged Putin to become even more aggressive towards Ukraine.

Asserting that sanctions have not achieved the desired change in Russian behavior, and in fact caused some unintended consequences, is not to suggest sanctions are/were the wrong thing to do. They were, and remain, appropriate. But more needs to be done.

Sanctions Punish, But Fail to Deter

Sanctions, while necessary as punishment, have utterly failed to DETER continued Russian aggression towards Ukraine. The only way to actually DETER Russian aggression is to make that aggression so costly and painful that Putin has no choice but to refrain from its continuance. The way to do that is to provide Ukraine with the defensive weaponry it needs to blunt Russian military/Russian proxy offensive operations in the Donbas region.

Kremlin’s Proxies Have No Incentive to Negotiate

The “Prime Minister” of the so-called Donetsk Peoples Republic, Zakharchenko, has publicly boasted he is no longer interested in any talks with the Ukrainian government, and has stated his objective as being the seizure of the rest of the Donetsk region. As long as Russian forces are gaining ground militarily, Putin and his surrogates in Donbas have no incentive whatsoever to negotiate a political settlement to the conflict. On the contrary: A steady flow of tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, ammunition, supplies and an estimated nine thousand Russian troops gives Putin’s proxies in Donbas every reason to continue the fight and seize additional territory.

The longer Putin’s proxies continue to seize and hold larger swaths of Ukrainian territory, the more difficult it will be for there to be a negotiated settlement. If proxy forces find themselves unable to continue their advance, or in fact experience battlefield reverses, they will be far more favorably disposed to negotiate than they are now. The West now must do all it can in the near-term to help Ukrainian defenders exact a horrific price on an attacking force.

Targeted Provision of Defensive Weapons and Equipment

It is in everyone’s best interests – except, of course, Vladimir Putin’s – that the Ukrainian military deploy a sufficient number of defensive weapons systems. Russia has massively armed and supplied its proxy forces in Donbas, giving them quantitative and qualitative advantages over Ukrainian defenders.

Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014

On 18 December 2014, President Obama signed into law the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014. Although the Act does not use the term “lethal aid”, it does authorize President Obama to “provide defense articles, defense services, and training to the Government of Ukraine for the purpose of countering offensive weapons and reestablishing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including anti-tank and anti-armor weapons, crew weapons and ammunition, counter-artillery radars to identify and target artillery batteries, fire control, range finder, and optical and guidance and control equipment, tactical troop-operated surveillance drones, and secure command and communications equipment, pursuant to the provisions of the Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 2751 et seq.), the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2151 et seq.), and other relevant provisions of law.” The bill appropriates $100M in aid for 2015, and an additional $125M each in 2016 and 2017. The types of equipment specified in the bill, if provided, would help Ukrainian defenders level the playing field against Kremlin-supplied attackers.

Moscow’s Reaction

Moscow’s reaction to President Obama’s signing of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act was swift, unequivocal, and (not surprisingly) vehemently negative; senior Russian government officials promised unspecified responses in the event the provisions of the Act were implemented.

A False Choice: Doing Nothing or Risking War

Some have cautioned that the West’s provision of weapons would risk turning our current Russian “adversary into a forthright enemy and encourage retaliation against more significant American interests.”[1] The Kremlin has been working very hard to sell that same narrative, and Russian sabre rattling, blustering, and demonstrations of military force (to include, but not limited to, NATO airspace intrusions by Russian military aircraft) are clearly intended to cow Western leaders into submission.

The prospect of negative Russian reactions to Western provision of military aid to Ukraine is, and should be, taken into consideration. But this should not deter the West – led by the U.S. – from doing what must be done to stop the steady expansion of Russian proxy-held territory in Ukraine. Bellicose Kremlin statements and behavior notwithstanding, the choice for the West is not a zero-sum decision between war and peace, between direct military involvement in Ukraine’s ongoing conflict and continued, exclusive reliance on economic sanctions. In this scenario, NATO troops will not be deployed to Ukraine in significant numbers, nor would they be present at the front in a combat or combat support capacity. Their role would strictly be to train Ukrainian troops in employment of these new weapons and battlefield systems.

Targeted Military Aid as Means to End the Fighting, Rather Than Expand It

By moving quickly to help Ukraine redress some specific shortcomings in its defensive military capabilities, the West can help stabilize the battlefield situation in Donbas and make meaningful negotiation by the parties to the conflict possible. Failure to assist Ukraine in this way will only encourage both Putin and his proxy forces to continue their advance deeper into Ukraine – a development which would increase, rather than decrease, the prospect of a wider war in which NATO becomes a direct participant.

[1] Doug Bandow, “How Many Enemies Does America Want? Congress Sacrifices U.S. Security With New Sanctions Against Russia?” Forbes, 15 December 2014, URL: http://www.forbes.com/sites/dougbandow/2014/12/15/how-many-enemies-does-america-want-congress-sacrifices-u-s-security-with-new-sanctions-against-russia/

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