Ever since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, subsequently backing a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine that simmers to this day, the United States has responded with a mix of sanctions, diplomacy, and military assistance.
That final part – supporting the Ukrainian military – has included support of defense reforms, on both strategic and tactical levels; training; and $750 million-worth of non-lethal equipment.
But there are whispers of change in Washington, hints that a perennial policy option that former President Barack Obama long rejected may be receiving a fresh lease on life: providing lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainians.
Some analysts vehemently oppose such a move, worried mostly by the prospect of a Russian escalation in response.
Outlining the main concern of the Obama era, Rajan Menon, a political scientist at the City College of New York, described a 1,165-mile border that Russia shares with Ukraine, and the “thousands of Russian troops ensconced in military bases” along its length.
He compared this with some 6,000 miles that separate Ukraine from the United States.
“Why would the reaction of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin … not be to scale up what he can do very easily, which is to reinforce the separatists?” Dr. Menon asked, speaking at a panel discussion last week hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Let’s be clear, Vladimir Putin has weathered sanctions, political isolation, put his soldiers on the ground, and allowed them to die in this cause.”
But today there appears to be increased support in senior government circles – not least as part of a broader effort to push back against an increasingly assertive foreign policy coming out of Moscow.
At a recent press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis dismissed fears of an escalation. “Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you’re an aggressor,” he said in response to a reporter’s question, and Ukraine is clearly “not an aggressor” as the fighting is happening within its own borders.
“We are closer than we’ve ever been before on the possibility of arming the Ukrainians,” says Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “But the administration should understand it’s not a panacea: Weapons should be just one part in dealing with Russian aggression.”
The Russian incursions in 2014 were a shock – “surprising, uncalled for, unpredicted,” as Bill Taylor, US ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, describes it – and as the US sought to calibrate its reaction, high on the agenda was seeking a cessation of hostilities.
In September 2014, a cease-fire known as the Minsk Protocol was signed by Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The deal fell apart, necessitating a second one, known as Minsk II, but that one failed, too.
In exasperation, the US slapped sanctions on Russia, as did the European Union and other countries. Both the US and its allies have sought to bolster the Ukrainian military, providing equipment ranging from counter-artillery and counter-mortar radars to IT systems and secure communications.
But with the simmering conflict having claimed more than 10,000 lives and the battlefront in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine still entrenched, the clamor in some parts of the US government for additional support is growing.
Recently, the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously approved a draft version of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018, which authorized $500 million in “security assistance to Ukraine, including defensive lethal assistance.”
“Be sure we’re clear,” says Ambassador Taylor, now executive vice president at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, “there’s no talk about general offensive weapons – tanks, fighter jets, those kinds of things.”
The one weapon currently under consideration that stirs the most controversy is the shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missile. It forms a part of some of the proposed packages being considered by top national security officials.
Costs of aggression
When proponents talk of the Javelin, they emphasize its “defensive” nature.
“Were we to arm the Ukrainians with ... things like the Javelin that can be carried by soldiers, the Ukrainians are not going to march on Moscow,” says Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and another former ambassador to Ukraine.
“Part of my view was shaped by [conversations with] Ukrainians,” he adds.“The Ukrainian military understands that even if we gave them these weapons, they’re not going to be able to defeat the Russians or drive them from Donbass.”
The aim of supplying the Javelins would be to deter further Russian advances into Ukraine, by making the costs of such aggression unpalatable to the Kremlin.
“The Russians have demonstrated they’re very sensitive to battlefield casualties in Ukraine,” says Evelyn Farkas, former senior adviser to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The one thing the anti-tank weapons can do is provide casualties.”
The idea of supplying Javelins or something similar has enjoyed substantial support in parts of the US government for the past couple of years, but is gaining ground as the Trump administration reconsiders ideas discarded by its predecessor.
“Look at Secretary Mattis, Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson,” says Ambassador Pifer, “people who share the beliefs of mainstream Republican policy – supportive of NATO, wary of Russia.”
The situation on the ground has also changed, as the Ukrainians themselves, says Mr. Coffey of The Heritage Foundation, have shown “through the ballot box” that they’re committed to a deeper embrace of the West.
A symbolic stand
And then there’s the bigger picture.
“[There’s] a political value, a political symbolism, to the West’s efforts to stand side by side with Ukraine,” says Laura Cooper, the acting deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia.
Many analysts, both in and out of government, believe that Russia is pushing back against the current international order on multiple fronts, and that the West’s reaction to Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and then Ukraine in 2014, has left the Kremlin emboldened. If a stand isn’t taken, the argument goes, where will it end?
But opponents of providing Ukraine with lethal weapons maintain the same objections that swayed the Obama administration: namely, that Russia could perceive this as an escalation to which they have to respond.
“The bottom line is that Putin cares more about Ukraine than the US or Europe does, so he’s prepared to put more skin in the game,” says Charles Kupchan, senior director for European Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council from 2014 to 2017, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “[We could be] beginning an escalatory cycle that Ukraine would lose.”
The retort from those who believe the time is right: What exactly would Russia do?
“The Russians are arming the separatists to the teeth,” says Coffey. “Short of giving them nuclear weapons, I’m not sure what more they could offer them.”