Time to Arm Ukraine? [UPDATED, 2/13]

Update, 2/13: This post was originally published on Feb. 3 and updated on Feb. 6. Since then, Brookings experts have continued to weigh in on the difficult questions. See below for additional materials.

In early February, a group of eight former senior U.S. diplomatic and military officials, including two Brookings experts, issued a report in which they urge the United States and NATO to bolster Ukraine’s defense and deter further Russian aggression by providing military assistance to Ukraine—including lethal defensive assistance. However, other Brookings scholars have voiced concerns about this strategy.

preserving_ukraines_independence_coverIn “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do,” the authors, including Brookings Senior Fellow Steven Pifer and Brookings President Strobe Talbott, make the case and provide recommendations on how the Obama administration and Congress should commit funds and for what specific methods of lethal assistance to Ukraine. The report is a collaboration of Brookings, the Atlantic Council, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Their key recommendations are:

• The White House and Congress should commit serious funds to upgrade Ukraine’s defense capabilities, specifically providing $1 billion in military assistance this year, followed by an additional $1 billion each in the next two fiscal years;

• The U.S. government should alter its policy and begin providing lethal assistance to Ukraine’s military and;

• The U.S. government should approach other NATO countries about also providing military assistance to Ukraine.

** UPDATE, 2/6/15: Since the release of the multi-organization report, additional views on whether or not to provide arms to Ukraine have emerged. These include:

  • Brookings Fellow Jeremy Shapiro, who explained why arming the Ukrainians “will lead only to further violence and instability, and possibly a dangerous confrontation with Russia.”
  • Senior Fellow Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the U.S. and Europe at Brookings, cautioned on the Diane Rehm Show that “when we make a decision like this we have to think about all of the different things Putin might do, and we cannot assume that he will be pushed back or deterred based on what we think will be the reaction of the Russian population.”
  • Fellow Tim Boersma, acting director of the Energy Security Initiative at Brookings, commented that “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.”
  • Hill and Senior Fellow Cliff Gaddy, who are co-authors of the new and expanded edition of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (Brookings, 2015), “strongly disagree” with the logic of the report, writing that “It is hard to find effective alternatives to the current sanctions policy, but if we plunge headlong into sending weapons, we may lose our allies, and we may never have the opportunity to get things right.”

  • Pifer discussed the group’s report on “On Point with Tom Ashbrook.”
  • Pifer and Talbott offered their own response to Shapiro’s dissent, stating that they “believe the provision of greater military assistance, along with continued economic sanctions, has a chance to change the calculation in Moscow and turn the Kremlin toward a genuine negotiated settlement.”

** UPDATE, 2/13/15:

  • Senior Fellow Elizabeth Ferris says internal displacement in Ukraine exceeds 1 million people, a crisis to which an “appropriate” U.S. response “would include not only humanitarian aid, but also technical assistance to the Ukrainian government and civil society organizations struggling to respond.”
  • Steven Pifer says the new ceasefire agreement reached in Minsk among Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France “raises tough questions and leaves difficult issues for later.”
  • Jeremy Shapiro replies to Talbott’s and Pifer’s response to his critique of their report, arguing that the situation is larger than Ukraine itself, that “in order to solve the problem, we need to begin a negotiation on the question of the European security order and Russia’s role within it.”
  • Fiona Hill makes the case that “Russia today is an entirely new challenge” and that “We need to chart out a new relationship with Russia.” She lays out four key points of this strategy.
  • Nonresident Senior Fellow Lilia Shevtsova unpacks 10 popular myths about the standoff in Ukraine between Russia and the West, concluding that “It’s high time that the West understood how far the Russian System is willing to go to survive. And it’s high time it roused itself from its postmodern dreams of accommodation and compromise.”
  • Pavel Baev, also a nonresident senior fellow, says that Putin will continue to attempt to take Ukrainian towns in the corridor to Crimea by force, and thus “Providing [Ukraine] military aid is not only pragmatically useful, it is also the right thing to do.”
  • Nonresident Senior Fellow Cesare Merlini also critiques the idea of supplying Ukraine with military aid, and notes “the heavy toll that Europeans would be required to pay if American-supplied weapons and technology foment a full-fledged war on Europe’s doorstep.”

Visit the Ukraine research topic page to get access to numerous media appearances by our scholars on the subject.

Pifer and Talbott participated in a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council. During the discussion, Talbott asserted that we should call what is happening in Ukraine “an act of war on the part of the Russian Federation.” This means, he said:

that there is going on in Ukraine today a literal invasion, not a proxy war, a literal invasion by the Russian armed forces. It’s a literal occupation of large parts, well beyond Crimea, of eastern Ukraine. And it is a virtual annexation of a lot of territory other than just Crimea. And in that respect, this is a major threat to the peace of Europe, to the peace of Eurasia, and therefore a threat to the interests of the United States and I would say a threat to the chances of a peaceful 21st Century.

Pifer, after reviewing the core recommendations from the report, addressed a concern that western assistance to the Ukrainian military would cause Russia to escalate. ‘[O]ur view is,” Pifer explained, that “the Russians have already escalated a lot over the last ten months.” Continuing, he added that:

the goal here is to give the Ukrainians military assistance so that they can raise the cost of escalation, the cost of aggression to Russia. It’s not about giving the Ukrainian army enough to beat the Russian army, that’s not going to happen. But if the Ukrainian army can raise the costs of aggression, it may be able to change that calculation in Moscow, it may be able to deter the Russians from further action. So the object here is to remove the military option, or at least remove the inexpensive military option from Moscow’s toolkit. If the Ukrainians can do that with western assistance, and then you have western sanctions continue on Russia, we think that there’s a very good chance that Moscow will then look for another way, and that would be the path of negotiating a genuine settlement, which the Russians so far have not really pursued.

It’s also a question of pushing back against Russia’s challenge to the broader European security order. And If we don’t take action now there is a serious risk of further Russian incursions, further Russian attempts to redraw borders, and they may take place in places that we can’t we can’t ignore. And the costs then to the United States of pushing back would be much more expensive than what we are advocating today.

Talbott also recognized the danger of Russian escalation, but said that “Putin seems to be bent on escalation.” Putin’s overall strategy, Talbott said, “is essentially a double game: talk across the table, and kill on the ground in Ukraine, and by the way as a result a lot of Russians are being killed.” 

And while not calling for boots on the ground in Ukraine, Talbott did remind the audience that the Baltic States are NATO allies, adding that “I’m not sure that Vladimir Putin totally accepts that as an operating principle. He is unquestionably probing, particularly in Estonia and Latvia … and I think it is important to have real boots, including American boots and our European allies’ boots, on the ground in the Baltic States.”

Watch the full event below:

Learn more about this event on

Also read the recent opinion piece by Pifer and Talbott, “Ukraine Needs America’s Help,” published in The Washington Post.

Get more research and commentary about Ukraine from Brookings experts.