In the Belly of the Beast: A European View on Sending Arms to Ukraine

As a European at Brookings, I have a privileged view into the world of American strategic thinking. It is a confusing picture. On most days, I am awe-struck at the depth and subtlety of my American colleagues’ knowledge and ideas. But on some days, I am simply struck at the aggressiveness and solipsism of these ideas. The heralded report titled Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, authored in part by my Brookings colleagues Strobe Talbott and Steven Pifer, is a case in point. In essence, the authors propose that the U.S. government spend $3 billion on weapons to strengthen Ukraine’s defense forces to deter further Russian aggression.

The Flaws in Arming Ukraine

Various flaws in this proposal have been pointed out already, including by other Brookings colleagues. In my view, the most questionable assumption that the authors seem to make, is that by increasing the amount of body bags being sent to Moscow, the Russian regime will be incentivized to negotiate peace. But for a European, and although I agree with many of the arguments already made, even the critics miss the central point. We are talking about a possible full-fledged war on Europe’s very doorstep. Many Americans seem awfully cavalier about risking that war in somebody else’s house. The authors of this report do not appear to have discussed their proposals with any European national officials outside NATO or even seriously considered European views on the subject. The rather stiff reaction of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the idea implies that that may have been a mistake. The French defense minister dismissed the idea of sending lethal weapons too.

Ignoring Europe is a particularly odd strategy in the case of the Ukraine crisis. Broadly, it has been hailed as a model of transatlantic cooperation and unity. Europe and America have moved together in lock-step on sanctions and not succumbed to the many efforts of the Russian regime to drive a wedge between them. If one would have asked American policymakers in February 2013 whether they would have deemed this possible, the response would most likely have been negative. Transatlantic unity has been the core element of the response thus far and it is broadly acknowledged that continued unity is the “conditio sine qua non” for effectively coercing the Russians.

Europe Leads the Crisis Response

And more than that, Europe has taken the lead on the response to this crisis. Chancellor Merkel has been the central diplomatic figure, and Germany and France have led the Western response to the crisis, with the acquiescence and support of the Obama administration. Of course, the fact that Europe has led, some Americans would argue, has also restrained the ambition level of actions. I would agree with that, but add that this criticism is easy to make given the modest economic ties between the United States and Russia, certainly in comparison to Europe.

In any case, the Ukraine crisis, even as it remains far from solved, has been a model of European leadership on European questions that American have long been asking for and rarely received. The contrast with European dithering and disunity over the Balkans in the 1990s is quite striking.

Why would the authors of this report want to threaten that essential transatlantic unity? They must know that a proposal for arming the Ukrainians would engender much controversy and opposition in Germany and Europe. In addition, the authors must be aware of the increasing hesitance of European member states in moving forward with existing policies, which hurt countries that have been suffering for years by a financial and euro crisis. I can only note that American foreign policy officials and experts tend to have a rather curious and paradoxical view of leadership. On the one hand, they frequently call for allies, particularly in Europe, to contribute more to geopolitical problems and to exercise greater leadership in their regions. But at the same time, they have been running the world for quite some time, and they have a certain instinct for leadership and control that almost seems to be in the water at Washington institutions like Brookings. In other words, they recognize that in a more multipolar world, responsibility must diffuse. But they don’t like it, and this proposal exemplifies that.

One consequence of this is that American foreign policy thinkers move more naturally and quickly to military solutions where their leadership remains paramount. In this case I find that a dangerous proposition.

Finding a Middle Ground in Ukraine

The proposal of my colleagues also suggests that only one outcome is acceptable: Ukraine turns west. That surprises me, because (at least some of) the authors have such profound knowledge of Ukraine and Russia. In U.S. thinking about solutions to solve this tragic conflict, I rarely hear about efforts to find middle ground. Instead, arguments are framed in righteous terms that make conciliation seem morally compromised. What if we agreed to rule out that Ukraine could join NATO? Or the EU? That probably would appeal to the sentiments long voiced by Soviet and later Russian leaders, who have always been deeply concerned about eastern expansion of NATO. Surely it was never set in stone that NATO would not expand further east, but the Russian sentiment has always been rather clear. Why totally dismiss these sensitivities in the current thinking? Moreover, the middle ground may also better reflect sentiments in both Ukraine and the EU, which evidently are broadly divided.

I sincerely hope that the tragic conflict in Ukraine will end soon. But after reading this report, I am not convinced that throwing a few billion dollars-worth of American weapons across the Atlantic is going to do the trick. Transatlantic unity and European leadership remain key to managing this problem. This proposal threatens those aspects of the response so far, catering to the very American sense that ‘something’ and ‘more’ needs to be done. But without a clear and broader plan that includes Europeans from the beginning, it sounds more like an atavistic echo of an American leadership that neither Europe nor America still wants.