by Elizabeth Pond
Hawks in Washington are arguing that the West should deliver lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces. At a moment of political uncertainty in Moscow, their view is that the NATO alliance should show the Kremlin it is not feckless when faced with Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
Such a policy would certainly make the congressional Rambos feel good. But flooding Ukraine with advanced weapons which its troops have not been trained to use would be dangerous and almost certainly lead to an escalation that would play to Russia’s local military superiority while failing to bolster Ukraine’s capabilities.
There are three reasons for this. First, sending lethal weapons to Ukraine could sleepwalk the world into its first nuclear war, at a time when the rules of restraint worked out by the superpowers in the original Cold War have expired.
Second, it ignores the fact that Ukraine, once the war smithy of the Soviet Union, is the world’s tenth largest arms exporter. It would be far cheaper to send ten executives on sabbatical from Boeing to Kyiv to advise Ukraine on modernizing its own heavy weapons production.
Third, given Ukraine’s history of corruption, deliveries of billions of dollars of weaponry could tempt Ukrainian oligarchs to revert to business as usual as the shock of Russia’s year-old attack wears off.
Western arms injections could hardly save Ukraine from further dismemberment, given the ratio of Ukraine’s 121,000 active servicemen to Russia’s 771,000 and just over 2,000 Ukrainian tanks to Russia’s 20,000. Indeed, a demonstrative influx of western arms into Ukraine would simply force any risk-averse demurrers in the Kremlin to join in common defiance of the American bogeyman with the ultranationalists whom Putin has empowered.
Hawks in the West tacitly admit that Moscow holds ‘escalation dominance’ in its own backyard by barring any western boots on the ground. As Antony Blinken, the US deputy secretary of state, explained in defending Barack Obama’s scepticism about funnelling weapons to Kyiv: ‘Anything we did as countries in terms of military support for Ukraine is likely to be matched and then doubled, tripled and quadrupled by Russia.’
Russia, the regional military giant, can instantly trump each western military initiative in any upward spiral. Its claim to an existential geopolitical interest in neighbouring Ukraine also trumps the distant West’s half-hearted, peripheral interest.
Where western hawks fail the sobriety test is in their refusal to specify how they would respond in the next weeks if a game of chicken proceeds on Russian rules and Moscow keeps raising the stakes all the way up to the nuclear level.
This is not idle speculation. Putin has said that he was ready to put nuclear forces on alert to defend his original takeover of Crimea a year ago.
At the other end of the scale is Chancellor Merkel of Germany, who advocates strategic patience in countering Russia’s breach of international law and Europe’s seven-decade taboo on changing borders by force. Is there a golden mean that helps Ukraine but does not taunt Moscow?
Fortunately, yes. The West’s surprisingly effective sanctions have exacerbated plunging oil prices to produce record capital flight in Russia, an abrupt halt to crucial western investment and technology transfer, 20 per cent inflation, and a drop in GDP of up to 6 per cent this year.
For the first time since Putin rose to power on the basis of high oil revenues and a social compact of restoring order after Russia’s post-Soviet chaos and building a new urban consumer class, the Russian president now faces growing impoverishment at home.
He cannot forever compensate by appealing to abstract Great Russian glory and sacrificing the lives of Russian soldiers to a war in Ukraine that he claims not to be waging. Time, which last year favoured Putin’s military faits accomplis, may this year begin to favour the West’s strategic soft power of prosperity and stability.
To be sure, the potential transmission belt from impoverishment to political moderation is not obvious. A population inured to fatalism is unlikely to revolt. The Russian elites have only a weak liberal impulse. So far, all Kremlin factions are hanging together.
What might in the future divide them, however, is the public blame that ultra-nationalists already heap on Putin for his timidity in not finishing the conquest of eastern Ukraine and the private fears that more cautious cronies may nurse about Putin’s ‘adventurism’ – to use the Soviet term for dangerous goading of the West.
German policy is to seek tacit mutual acceptance of relatively stable de-escalation. To keep up the pressure, Merkel has changed the European agenda from easing financial sanctions if Russia has not seized more Ukrainian territory by the summer, to strengthening sanctions if Russia violates the terms of the Minsk package ceasefire before the end of the year.
This makes more sense than sending sophisticated western weapons to Kyiv that would require months of training before Ukrainian forces could use them – and could be captured by Russians.
The West stands to gain far more by helping the Ukrainians to maximize their own arms production. Ukraine still turns out solid Soviet-era tanks and missiles (and exports spare parts to Russia, oddly enough). The tanks may not match the high tech of German Leopards but Ukrainian soldiers know how to operate them.
The US Congress should certainly keep the threat of delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine on the docket. NATO should continue to demonstrate its determination to defend all alliance members, by conducting joint exercises in the Baltic states and Poland and intercepting Russian bombers.
It should continue to conduct modest joint military manoeuvres in western Ukraine under the ‘distinctive partnership’ that NATO granted Kyiv as a consolation prize in the 1990s, when the alliance signed a ‘Founding Act’ with Russia, and it should use the timing and intensity of war gaming to signal responses to Russian threats or overtures.
The West should further nudge Kyiv to replace the dysfunctional senior command of the Ukrainian army and promote the majors and captains who have already had extensive training in the West. It should upgrade Ukraine’s existing heavy weapons by providing enough surveillance drones and intelligence and electronics to facilitate real-time targeting and counteract Russian jamming of Ukrainian communications in the east.
It should insist on Russian compliance with the Minsk truce – including the provisions for Kyiv’s control of Ukraine’s own borders in the east by the end of 2015 – as a prerequisite for easing sanctions. And it should broaden the sanctions if Russia, despite the ceasefire, overwhelms Mariupol and Kharkiv in a bid to partition Ukraine and deprive its government of control of the east.
It should also use all its influence to promote urgent economic reform. Ukrainian oligarchs must be prevented from divvying up state wealth in the the form of privatization receipts and rescue funds from the International Monetary Fund.
Above all, the West should help Russia’s rulers recognize their own internal ‘contradictions’ (to borrow another Soviet term) and loosen the hardliners’ grip in the Kremlin. And it should help all the latent Kremlin factions realize that Putin is incurring very high costs in his adventurism. He lost all of Ukraine as a client state after his protégé, President Viktor Yanukovych, had peaceful pro-European demonstrators shot on Euromaidan Square a year ago.
He lost most of ‘Novorossiya,’ his anachronistic name for the eastern third of Ukraine, when the masses there failed to follow Russian military agitators and rise in rebellion. He has preserved only a Crimea that is a drain on his budget and the desolate ruins of half of the Donbas.
More broadly, Putin has brought growing turmoil to the Caucasus, overstretch to the Russian army and a rising toll of Russian military corpses in Ukraine that the army is doing its best to keep secret. By his threats he has revived a moribund NATO, and by converting the Russians from brother East Slavs into enemies, he has bestowed on Ukrainians a new sense of consolidated non-Russian identity.
What the West should do at this stage, then, is to trust the efficacy of sanctions and Russia’s own resolution of ‘contradictions’. What it should not do is to play Putin’s game by rushing to export lethal weapons to Ukraine.