Why Arming the Ukrainians is a Bad Idea

Steve Pifer is a good friend and a treasured colleague. And Strobe Talbott is my boss—so it goes without saying that I greatly admire his work. But as important as friendship and job security are to me, I still can only conclude that their proposal to arm Ukrainians will lead only to further violence and instability, and possibly a dangerous confrontation with Russia.

Steve and Strobe’s article (and the supporting report with several other prominent authors) rings with fury at Russian actions. And Russian actions are indeed outrageous. But moral indignation, no matter how righteous and satisfying, is not a strategy. A strategy needs to describe just how provision of American arms would make the situation better.

Rather than such a description, the article suggests that a just cause and the Ukrainian need and desire for weapons are enough to justify their provision. But it is hardly surprising that the Ukrainians want American arms in their war against Russia and Russian-backed separatists—they face the possibility of territorial dismemberment and would run any risk to preserve their state intact.

The Ukrainian calculus is one of immediate desperation. But the United States needs to think for the longer-term. And if U.S.-provided weapons fail to induce a Russian retreat in Ukraine and instead cause an escalation of the war, the net result will not be peace and compromise. There has recently been much escalation in Ukraine, but it could go much further. As horrible as it is, the Ukrainian civil war still looks rather tame by the standards of Bosnia, Chechnya or Syria. Further escalation will mean much more violence, suffering and death in Ukraine.

The report authors counter that if the United States does not stand up to Russia in Ukraine, the Putin regime will be emboldened to make similar mischief all over Europe and beyond. This is the familiar credibility argument that gave us the war in Vietnam, among other misadventures. In fact, U.S. credibility is not enhanced by making bluffs that we will not ultimately fulfill or by embarking on wasting wars that we do not need.

In any case, Ukraine is a unique situation, both for the Russians and for the United States. It is culturally and geographically supremely important to the Russians and yet for the United States it has no intrinsic geopolitical importance and is not a treaty ally. The Russians would be foolish to judge U.S. credibility in responding to provocations in areas of greater importance to the United States on the basis of its non-military response to Ukraine. And there is no evidence that they are that foolish.

In the meantime, to meet a Russian counter-escalation in Ukraine, the United States would have to either escalate the conflict beyond where it was originally willing to go or be forced into a humiliating retreat. Neither is a very attractive or credibility-enhancing option. U.S. policy should work very hard to avoid confronting that unpalatable choice. Otherwise, this dynamic might well draw the United States deeper into what could become a direct confrontation with a seriously pissed-off and still heavily nuclear-armed Russia.

To Escalate or Not to Escalate

So the key question becomes: what will the Russians do in response to America’s provision of arms to its enemy? For Steve and Strobe, the goal is to give “the Ukrainian military sufficient means to make further aggression so costly that Putin and the Russian army are deterred from escalating the fight.” This seems a tall order. Ukraine is clearly much more important to Russia than it is to United States. Ukraine is also, unfortunately, located much closer to Russia than to the United States. Russia would appear to have many escalation options and a clear incentive to exercise them.

Indeed, the Russian military is far stronger than the Ukrainian military, as we learned in late August when a one-off injection of regular units led to hundreds of dead Ukrainians at Ilovaisk. No program of U.S. assistance will change that balance. As the authors of the report admit, “[e]ven with enormous support from the West, the Ukrainian army will not be able to defeat a determined attack by the Russian military.”

The Mothers of All Strategies

So how do the report authors think that the United States and their doughty Ukrainian allies can force the Russians to back down in Ukraine? The authors assert that the secret to getting Russia to back down is to increase Russian “costs”, by which they mean Ukraine could take advantage of Russia’s sensitivity to casualties. U.S. arms will mean that Russian soldiers will die in much greater numbers in the effort to satisfy Russian objectives in Ukraine. The Russian government has been hiding the deaths of their soldiers in Ukraine from their own population for fear of the public reaction, and that will become much more difficult if casualties increase dramatically. The government supposedly fears the ire of Russian mothers whose devotion to the well-being of their soldier-sons can move political mountains even in authoritarian Russia. Rather than face a growing number of aroused and organized Russian mothers, the thinking goes, President Vladimir Putin will avoid escalation in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, one of the few more powerful forces than mothers in Russian politics is anti-Americanism. The Russian regime has defined the struggle in Ukraine as part of an existential battle against American imperialism, in which the United States eventually seeks to impose its will on Russia itself. American provision of arms would lend credence to that view and increase the Russian government’s freedom of action at home.

One would like to believe in the power of Russian mothers to conquer their government. But in the end, it is hard to find comfort in a plan whose success relies on Vladimir Putin’s sensitivity to death and to the suffering of the Russian people.