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Up Front

Arming the Ukrainians and Russia’s Reaction

Steven Pifer and Strobe Talbott

Jeremy Shapiro is a good and valued friend and colleague, and we fully share the view that reasonable people can differ. Corridor disagreements with bright people who hold different opinions make working at Brookings fun. We will respond in that spirit to Jeremy’s February 3 blog, “Why Arming the Ukrainians is a Bad Idea” with four points.

First, our recommendations that the U.S. government provide Ukraine additional military assistance, including defensive weapons were not based on rage, though Russia’s actions—using military force to dismember a neighboring state—are outrageous. Our recommendations were based on a calculation of U.S. interest in view of the biggest security threat that Europe has faced since the end of the Cold War.
Part of this calculation is based on the importance of the United States adhering to commitments. In 1994, the United States, along with Russia and the United Kingdom, committed in the Budapest Memorandum to respect the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine as part of the deal to get Kyiv to eliminate 2,000 strategic nuclear weapons. 

Part of the calculation is based on concern that the Kremlin, if it believes that its hybrid warfare tactics in Ukraine have worked, will be tempted to try them elsewhere. Jeremy writes that Ukraine is a unique case and suggests that we need not worry. Perhaps, but we see reasons for concern, especially as Russia violates a host of its commitments going back to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, conducts provocative military exercises all around NATO, kidnaps an Estonian security officer, and loudly proclaims a right to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, regardless of their location or citizenship—or whether they wish to be “protected.”

Second, on escalation, we believe that we are smart enough to control our engagement. Providing mostly non-lethal assistance and light-anti armor weapons does not automatically or invariably put the United States on a path to sending the 82nd Airborne to Kyiv. Our report made clear that we did not recommend deploying U.S. troops, and we would not do so. Indeed, the Ukrainians are not asking for them.

Third, we do not dispute Jeremy’s contention that Ukraine is more important to Russia than the United States. But Ukrainians get a vote in this, and they care. They care a lot—enough so that they are prepared to fight not only the separatists but the strongest military power in Europe with a military that has been under-funded, under-armed, and under-trained for 25 years. They know they cannot beat the Russian army, but they are defending their homeland and believe they can make the fight much harder and more costly for the Russians. 

Fourth, does President Putin care about dead Russian soldiers and the ire of their anguished mothers? Maybe not. But he does seem to care considerably about his public standing and, by all appearances, the effect of dead soldiers on that standing. Why else would he continue to deny that Russia is fighting in Ukraine while his army buries its dead at night and warns wounded veterans that they will lose their disability benefits if they disclose that they were injured in Ukraine? Jeremy contends that U.S. military assistance would free Putin from this constraint. We would argue that the Kremlin already accuses the United States of arming Ukraine, and the constraint still binds.

We 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. If there’s a better plan for settling the conflict, one that does not amount to wholesale Ukrainian capitulation, we would like to hear it.

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