COMMENT: To arm or not to arm Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews February 17, 2015

Mark Adomanis in Philadelphia -


As the war (there's no point any longer in using hedging words like "crisis" or "conflict") in eastern Ukraine has intensified over the past several months, an idea that would have once been considered radical has rapidly gained traction among mainstream pundits. I'm talking, of course, about the prospect of sending weapons, “lethal defensive aid” in the parlance of Pentagon bureaucrats, to assist the Ukrainian military.

In a debate that was already rather contentious, the issue of “defensive*” weapons has stood out for the extreme intensity of views on both sides. The normally rather staid world of security think-tanks has erupted into the rhetorical equivalent of a bar fight. People whose prose normally is replete with phrases like “engagement with a broad group of multilateral stakeholders” are now openly calling their opponents “apologists” or “warmongers” or any number of other epithets that you would never normally encounter in elite foreign policy debates. The point is not to laugh at the awkwardness of the situation, but to highlight how worked up and agitated everyone is.

Most analyses are unambiguously and openly partisan: giving weapons to Ukraine is either the equivalent of Lend-Lease or it is going to be the start of World War III. There is merit in trying – as calmly, clearly and honestly as possible – to lay out the pros and cons.

The pros

Proponents of providing weapons make several distinct but related armaments. The first, and most basic, is that a more capable Ukrainian military would "change Putin's calculus" by raising the costs of intervention. Most analysts focus on the direct financial costs that Russia would incur to replace lost equipment. Facing a Ukraine armed with high-tech US weapons, Putin would have to feed more and more materiel into the cauldron of eastern Ukraine merely for the separatists to maintain their current position. Given Russia’s tenuous economic situation, the hope is that even a modest increase in the Ukrainian army’s combat efficacy would bring the Kremlin’s finances to the breaking point.

Other analysts, clearly a minority but by no means a tiny one, place a higher emphasis on indirect costs, namely the political damage that Putin would suffer from ever-larger casualties in the Russian military. This line of thought holds that the Kremlin would rapidly lose support among the Russian public once it was widely understood that Russian soldiers were fighting and dying on the territory of another country. While Putin might be able to maintain his hold on power, these analysts suggest that mass casualties among the Russian armed forces would inevitably cause a wave of public resistance and would make continuation of the campaign in East Ukraine impossible.

In general, then, proponents of arming Ukraine assert that deliveries of Western military equipment will make the Ukrainian army a substantially more potent fighting force and will, through a combination of elevated financial and political pressure, force a change in Russian policy.

The cons

In comparison to proponents, who by and large fall into two distinct groups, the skeptics of arming Ukraine are a somewhat more diverse cast of characters. Given space constraints it isn’t possible to list every argument they’ve made, but the most significant ones can be reviewed.

Probably the single clearest rejoinder is the idea that Putin enjoys “escalation dominance”, meaning that he is willing and able to meet or exceed any amount of assistance that the West provides Ukraine. In crude fashion, escalation dominance means that if the West gives Ukraine 20 new tanks, then Putin will send 40 into the Donbas. 

“Realist” opponents of arming Ukraine also highlight the hierarchy of interests: Ukraine is quite simply a much higher foreign policy priority for Russia than it is for the West. Great powers rarely compromise when it comes to their core security needs, and since Ukraine is a core Russian interest (perhaps even the core Russian interest), these analysts say that we shouldn’t expect the Russians to back down.

Another group of people who argue against arming Ukraine focus more on the defects of the Ukrainian state. This argument doesn’t so much concern Russian capabilities or desires, but the simple fact that the Ukrainian army is a broken and ineffective institution whose problems run much deeper than a simple lack of high-end Western weapons. These analysts tend to have more exposure to the lived reality of modern armed forces, and note that without substantial improvement to the Ukrainian military’s "command control and communications" (eg. where to put weapons and how and when to use them) new hardware won't have any impact.

The takeaway

There aren’t any easy answers to the war that Ukraine now faces, no quick solutions to a nightmare of increasing severity. People will have to make their own minds up about the advisability of arming Ukraine by answering the following questions:

1. What price is Russia willing to pay to keep Ukraine out of the West’s orbit?

2. To what extent is the Russian public supportive of their government’s current policy in Ukraine?

3. Would Western assistance to Ukraine elevate or reduce the Russian public’s level of support for the separatists fighting in Donetsk and Lugansk?

4. How easily would the Ukrainian military incorporate new systems?

*I’ve never read an adequate explanation for what a “defensive” weapon is, but for the purposes of this article let’s accept the dubious proposition that there are weapons which can be configured in such a way as to make them non-threatening to anyone but an attacker.

Mark Adomanis is an MBA/MA student at the Wharton School of Business and the Lauder Institute. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAdomanis


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