While the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine was never all that peaceful to begin with, the region seems close to open warfare again following the collapse of peace talks in Minsk, with Russian-backed separatist rebels shelling the positions of government troops, government forces shelling the rebel-held town of Donetsk, and both sides mobilizing for further combat.
In light of this, the New York Times reported Monday that Obama administration officials, including national security adviser Susan Rice, are taking a “fresh look” at the question of providing military aid to Ukraine. NATO military commander Philip Breedlove now supports giving the Ukrainian military “defensive weapons,” an idea also endorsed in a new report by a group of former senior defense officials, including Michèle Flournoy, who will probably be in the running for secretary of defense if Hillary Clinton becomes president.
So far, the U.S. has resisted providing weapons to Ukraine, limiting aid to “nonlethal” items like body armor, helmets, night-vision goggles, and sleeping bags. The lethal vs. nonlethal distinction, which I wrote about in 2012 in the context of the debate over arming Syrian rebels, can be a fuzzy one: A radio can be much deadlier than an AK-47 if you’re using it to call in an airstrike.
The “defensive” vs. “offensive” distinction is even fuzzier. “There is literally no weapon that is not useful in some way to both attackers and defenders.” says Steve Biddle, an expert on defense planning at George Washington University.” For instance, anti-tank missile systems are considered “defensive” because they are operating against tanks that are generally conducting offensive attacks. But these same missile systems can be adapted to fire on buildings, as Hezbollah has done in operations against the Israeli military.
So why not simply give the Ukrainian government the arms and ammunition it’s been desperately asking for? “We’re trying to improve Ukraine’s ability to defend itself without increasing its ability to engage in offensive aggression,” Biddle says. “Our larger ambition is not to cause the collapse of Russia and regime change—our objective is simply to have people keep what they now have and stop preying on each other.”
Defensive military aid is often proposed in cases in which a government wants to signal its support for one side in a conflict, but not so much that it provokes a response from a more powerful adversary. “It’s a political distinction,” argues Barry Posen, a political scientist at MIT who’s studied cases of inadvertent military escalation. U.S. officials are “either trying to convince the domestic policy audience that they’re only dipping a toe in the war or they’re sending a message to the Russians that they’re not coming after them.”
So with diplomatic efforts collapsing, providing defensive weapons seems like the only politically acceptable way for the U.S. to increase its support for Ukraine. But will it make any difference?
“The real question is whether we can change the situation enough that the Russians can’t cope with it,” says Posen. “It may increase the Russian costs a bit, but they’ve already shown themselves to be willing to absorb some pretty significant costs.”
While Russia had reportedly pulled back its troops from Ukraine following the signing of the ceasefire agreement in September, NATO now says it sees signs of Russian support for the separatists increasing. (The Russian government has continually denied that it has troops in Ukraine or that it is arming the rebels.) If true, this suggests the Russian government has not been deterred by months of sanctions that have contributed, along with falling oil prices, to the country’s current economic distress.
As Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues, the introduction of better defensive systems to the battlefield could help Ukrainian troops hold out against territorial gains by the separatists but seem unlikely to change the one factor that matters most: Vladimir Putin’s thinking. “If I’m Putin, this could demonstrate to me how much the U.S. and NATO are willing to get involved, which is not much,” he told me.
If Russia is willing to bear the costs of political and economic isolation, which for now it seems to be, it can continue to pour resources into the fight, knowing that there’s only so far Western countries will be willing to go to counter them. “I think there’s a real risk,” Posen says, “that we’re going to start providing weapons to the Ukrainians and will look up after a year or so and find out it hasn’t really helped that much.”