Ukraine arms request to fight rebels divides US, Germany

The White House seems ready to provide lethal arms to Ukraine's beleaguered forces against a fresh offensive by pro-Russian rebels. German officials are much cooler on the prospect. 

Petr David Josek/AP
Ukrainian soldiers guard a check point near the town of Debaltseve on Tuesday. Almost 2,000 residents have fled in the last few days amid a surge of violence in eastern Ukraine.

The escalating fighting in eastern Ukraine has exposed a central strategic fissure between the United States and Germany, two key allies that both have stakes in the conflict. 

Earlier this week, White House officials signaled their willingness to possibly provide lethal weapons to the embattled Ukrainian forces. Until now, the US hasn't sent missiles or firearms for fear of provoking Russia, which supports the separatist forces. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that Germany would play no part in supplying such arms to Kiev. She instead voiced support for negotiations and a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian conflict, which has killed at least 5,350 people, the UN reports. 

"Germany will not support Ukraine with weapons," Ms. Merkel said after meeting with Hungary's prime minister Victor Orban in Budapest. Merkel said she prefers the pressure exerted by economic sanctions on Russia and negotiations to "solve or at least mitigate the conflict,” The Associated Press reports.

But US officials say such measures are not enough to deter further aggression by the Russia-backed rebels. Having provided nonlethal aid – including protective vests, night-vision goggles, and gas masks – to Ukraine for several months, the US is now considering supplying the country with antitank missiles, small arms, and ammunition.

For the White House, the big question is whether providing so-called “defensive lethal arms” to Ukraine's military would prompt Russian President Vladimir Putin to reduce his support for the rebels – or to increase it, further destabilizing the country.

A new report co-authored by eight former American officials helps explain the Obama administration’s decision to renew the discussion. The report argues that the best way to deter Moscow, and tackle the separatist insurgency, is "by raising risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive." It urges the US to provide $3 billion in military assistance to Ukraine over the next three years, which would allow it to purchase better weapons and military equipment.

"The United States and NATO should seek to create a situation in which the Kremlin considers the option of further military action in or against Ukraine too costly to pursue," the report says.

Some observers in the US and Europe disagree with the report's approach and its focus on military deterrence. Miodrag Soric, an opinion writer for Deutsche Welle, argues that arming Ukraine would likely backfire:

Not every conflict can be solved by the military. If the Americans supply the Ukrainians with modern weapons, then President Putin will also improve his fighters' equipment. An arms race would ensue; above all, to the benefit of the arms manufacturers.

In a war like this, more weapons mean more violence.

No one could seriously want this. For this reason, many Europeans – in particular, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – are against more arms deliveries.

Another concern is how weapons provided by the US and NATO to Ukrainian troops would be perceived by the Russian people, many of who already believe that the conflict in Ukraine is a concealed Western bid to contain or weaken Russia. As the editors of Bloomberg View write:

If anything can stir the Russian people to accept an open war with fellow Slavs in Ukraine (so far they don't), it is the idea that they would be fighting not Ukrainians but NATO, the military alliance they have grown up believing was bent on their destruction. A U.S. intention to provide only "defensive" weapons may be an important distinction in the U.S., but it's meaningless in Russia. Anti-tank weapons and even radar that allows Ukraine's military to locate and strike enemy artillery positions will still kill Russian soldiers. They would be perceived by ordinary Russians as offensive weapons, even without help from Russia's inflammatory propaganda machine.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has displaced 900,000 people since it began in April, according to the United Nations. Indiscriminate shelling and the escalation in fighting have killed at least 224 civilians in the past three weeks alone.

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