Why Pentagon is hesitant to arm Ukraine

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is 'very much inclined' to arm Ukrainian fighters, but generals are wary of weapons falling into the wrong hands. They also hope Russia will 'eventually' want to rejoin the international community. 

Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Children present their paintings to servicemen of the Ukrainian national guard battalion 'Donbass' before they depart to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, in central Kiev, on Tuesday. Three Ukrainian servicemen have been killed in fighting in the east of Ukraine in the past 24 hours despite a ceasefire agreement with Russian-backed rebels, a Kiev military spokesman said on Tuesday.

Whether to arm Ukrainians fighting against Russian-backed rebels is one of the more hotly debated topics in Washington.

Within the halls of venerable think tanks like the Brookings Institution, foreign policy heavyweights debate the pros and cons. Senior Pentagon officials are divided, too. 

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told lawmakers that he is “very much inclined” to arm Ukrainian fighters. “I think we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves.”

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, was a bit more reserved, saying that the United States should “consider” the possibility of lethal aid, but that any such aid should flow through NATO members. 

As a general rule, the US military tends to be more circumspect in matters such as providing arms, well aware that they can be misused or fall into the wrong hands, as in the notable and most recent cases of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. 

Equally important in Ukraine, the US military has not given up on the novel possibility that Russia may some day “eventually” want to rejoin the international community, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the top US Army commander in Europe, in remarks to reporters at the Center for Media and Security Tuesday.

"Providing weapons is not a strategy,” he added. More to the point, “If you give weapons, then what?”

 The “then what” centers around the ways in which providing lethal aid has the potential to escalate the crisis.

Already, Russia’s annexation of the Crimea (General Hodges prefers to call it an “illegal occupation”) one year ago has been followed by bloody battles in Ukraine. 

“The intensity, the violence, the fighting – these are not rebels behind trees taking pot shots,” he says. “These are tanks, massive artillery, massive rocket fire – thousands of people have been killed.” 

Proponents of providing lethal arms to Ukraine say that it would “raise the cost” for Mr. Putin.

“There are valid arguments to be made” for arming Ukraine, Hodges said, citing Frederick the Great’s maxim that diplomacy without weapons is like an orchestra without instruments. “But saying it’s a valid argument is different from saying this should be policy.” 

There is, too, the Pentagon’s oft-cited “DIME” elements of strategy – that stands for diplomacy, information, military, and economic. “Everyone I know in the military wants to see the emphasis on the ‘D,’ ” he says.

To that end, the US military delayed the start of training, which will involve matching three battalions of US Army troops with three Ukrainian battalions, in order “to try to find some more space to see if the ceasefire agreement could be successfully implemented.” 

That training is now set to begin next week, but that “doesn’t signal an assessment that Minsk has failed,” Hodges is quick to note. 

“Serious-minded people want to make sure this doesn’t derail Minsk,” he added, citing the name given to the ceasefire agreement.

No fan of Russian president Vladimir Putin, “I just don’t believe that the focus should be on the weapons,” Hodges says. “We want Russia to be a partner in a lot of things.” That includes “combating terrorism” and ventures in the Arctic, for example. 

“Our policy ought to be about how do we get to a diplomatic solution that respects the sovereign borders of countries? And then Russia eventually rejoining the international community.”

So the chief question moving forward should be “What do we want the security situation to be in that part of Europe?” Hodges adds. “What is the desired end-state?”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.