By Daniel Pitcairn
President Obama faces significant pressure from the DC foreign policy community to send lethal aid to Ukraine, but doing so will not hasten an end to the conflict in the Donbas and could backfire spectacularly.
To arm or not to arm Ukraine, that is the question currently giving President Obama pause over how to respond to the recent advances made by Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Advocates of military assistance (among them a recent taskforce of prominent former officials) argue that the United States and others should provide greater security assistance, including “defensive” weapons, in order to raise the cost of Putin’s actions and deter further Russian military incursions in the region. But sending lethal aid to Ukrainian forces will not hasten the conflict’s end.
As Obama weighs his options, he should consider how providing lethal assistance could backfire:
First, there is little evidence to suggest that the limited military assistance we are likely to provide will achieve the goal its advocates claim it will: a military stalemate that allows for negotiations on terms more favorable to Kyiv. This is because, as Brookings expert Fiona Hill and others have observed, Russia maintains escalation dominance in this scenario. Because Russia’s primary strategic interests are at stake while ours are not, Putin will always be willing to raise the stakes beyond what the U.S. is willing to do. In fact, U.S. lethal aid threatens to launch the conflict into a more dangerous escalation spiral that may actually encourage greater Russian aggression. At the very least, it would preclude a diplomatic agreement to end the crisis for the foreseeable future.
Second, military assistance would vindicate Putin’s narrative construing Kyiv as a pawn of the United States and its allies. The Russian public currently opposes Russian military intervention in Ukraine, which is why the Kremlin has gone to great lengths to deny involvement and cover up casualties. But if the United States were to send military assistance that results in greater Russian casualties, the Russian public might actually then support greater Russian intervention against what they will see as an aggressive act by a patronizing power.
Third, sending U.S. lethal aid could rupture the transatlantic unity in opposition to Russian aggression that Western diplomats have worked so hard to maintain. Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, among other European leaders, strongly oppose sending lethal aid, arguing that adding more arms and military hardware to the equation will only worsen the situation. This, in and of itself, is not reason enough to oppose sending lethal aid to Ukraine, but it is an undeniable consequence of doing so and offers further reason not to.
Considering the case against arming Ukraine, it is in some ways a wonder that so many foreign policy luminaries support doing so. Stephen Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard, offers two underlying reasons that may explain this thinking.
First and foremost, the dominant account of Russia’s actions in Ukraine portrays Putin and Russia as expansionist and aggressive, when in reality insecurity and fear may be their true drivers. Russia is not a rising power with a global ideology seeking to throw its weight around. It is an aging, declining power that sees an unfriendly Western bloc continuously closing in on its European borders over the last two decades. In this case, “when insecurity is the taproot of a state’s revisionist actions, making threats just makes the situation worse.” Thus, an escalatory move like sending lethal aid to Kyiv would only “reinforce their fears and make them even more aggressive.”
Second, the United States has had a tendency to engage in, as Walt describes, “take-it-or-leave it” diplomacy in recent history. In the context of the Ukraine conflict, this means demanding Russia simply give up its pursuit of what it considers to be its primary strategic interests in Ukraine. Genuine bargaining, which takes into account the divergence in the stakes for Russia and the United States in this conflict, may not be pretty, but it would give both Ukraine and the United States the best chance of achieving their larger, long-term interests.
Thinking one or two moves down the line, providing lethal aid to Ukraine would not achieve its intended goal and would likely worsen the conflict significantly. Obama should withstand internal pressure to do so and focus on thinking through where the West and Kyiv can bend (but not break) regarding their strategic interests to hasten an end to this conflict. Many will insist this constitutes appeasement, but the long game favors Kyiv’s integration with Europe, and the existence of conflict is the key barrier preventing Ukraine moving down this path.
Daniel Pitcairn is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs, focusing on Russia, NATO, and U.S. foreign policy. He holds an undergraduate degree in Global Affairs from Yale University and is currently a Research Analyst for Government Executive Media Group.