Should the US dramatically increase military support to Ukraine as it faces defiant separatists in the east who are backed by Russian intelligence, advisers, and heavy weapons? Key members of the Obama administration reportedly are ready to say yes, arguing that Vladimir Putin must be brought to his senses about the pressure he is putting on Ukraine’s government, in defiance of the September 5 cease-fire agreement that has clearly broken down. A star-studded panel of eight Pentagon and former officials have written a report (noted in the New York Times of February 2) that urges a $3-billion increase over three years in “lethal” US military aid as the proper way to respond to Putin. In short, all these current and former officials evidently have concluded that “non-lethal” equipment now being given to Ukraine, such as night-vision goggles and trucks, is insufficient.
But is this major policy shift wise? At least three large considerations need to be brought into the discussion. First is the fact that sanctions on Russia have had their intended effect. Russia is hurting. Patience, not escalation of force, is needed—just as it was when George H.W. Bush wrongly decided in 1991 to leapfrog sanctions and go after Saddam Hussein directly. The move didn’t work. What will “defensive” weapons to Ukraine—anti-tank missiles and drones, for instance—accomplish? My guess is that they will help Ukraine’s air force bomb targets in urban areas, further increasing civilian casualties. They will enable Ukraine’s army to hit Russian tanks and locate artillery positions; but they will not stop shipments of additional tanks and artillery. Moreover, let’s face it: what one side in a conflict regards as a “defensive” weapon is “offensive” to the other side. This bit of sophistry should not go unanswered.
Second is that Ukraine’s government is not an innocent victim here. Russia’s direct role in the fighting is fact, but so is brutal treatment of the separatist areas by Ukraine’s government. It has caused considerable civilian casualties and damage to many buildings with its assaults, and by isolating the east’s economy it has left thousands of people without basic social services. Both sides have responsibility for violations of the cease-fire and devastation of that part of the country.
Third is the questionable logic that further militarizing the conflict will help bring about a political settlement that all sides agree is the only sensible way out. Those who believe more force is needed make an old and tired argument: Sanctions backed by power will move the opponent to the bargaining table. The former US representative to NATO, Ivo Daalder, one of the authors of the report cited above, said as much in an interview on National Public Radio (www.npr.org/2015/02/02/383346073/as-tension-grows-should-u-s-offer-lethal-aid-to-ukraine). We must “raise the cost” to Russia for its intervention in Ukraine, he said, and the only cost that will make a difference to Putin is in body bags. (“We know from the history in Afghanistan and other places that when Russian soldiers die, then the cost and the debate in Moscow and in the rest of Russia will go up.”) Is that so? Is Putin the sort of leader who, thriving these days on a nationalism built on visions of Greater Russia, will respond to Western power by backing down rather than staying the course? Daalder could only say, “hopefully.”
By the way, note the authors and sponsors of the report that is fueling the debate in favor of lethal US aid to Ukraine. Far from being objective observers, these are experts wedded to the old Cold War practice of pushback. The three foreign-policy groups behind the authors—the Atlantic Council, headed now by Daalder; the Brookings Institution; and the Chicago Council of World Affairs—are influential mainstream organizations that rarely move outside predictable lines of argument. They are reliable supporters of a US “national interest” that favors toughness, the supremacy of American values, and corporate globalism. They think checkmate, not peace.
Should the President agree with his advisers, the net result will most likely be more innocent deaths, increased intensity of fighting, and a proxy war between the Russian Federation and NATO. If we want to see Ukraine’s future, take a look at what has happened to Kobani, Syria now that Kurdish fighters have “liberated” it from ISIS. The city is a moonscape; there was nothing to liberate.
In Ukraine we have both a civil war and a proxy war. Four sides need to have their interests met. For the US/NATO and Ukraine, that means Russian adherence to a cease-fire and reaffirmation of Ukraine’s sovereignty within its internationally recognized borders. Russia in return wants most of all the assurance that Ukraine will never join NATO and become a pro-Western military outpost on its border—an expression of its historical security concern. Is that demand unreasonable? Ukraine certainly has the right, as a sovereign nation, to join any international organization it wishes. But sometimes—and I believe this is one such time—exercising sovereignty to enhance security actually undermines it. A militarily neutral Ukraine on Russia’s doorstep seems like a better bet on Ukraine’s future than playing “chicken” with Russia and heightening the risk of terrible destruction (per the cartoon at www.alternet.org/comics/comics-matt-bors-coverage-ukraine-crisis).