Sending U.S. arms to Ukraine is a bad idea

By Daniel DePetris

Being shrewd and setting priorities can determine whether the national security policies of the U.S. actually meet the nation’s interests or entrap us in disputes that can lead to geostrategic instability. The first several months of a new administration, when the president orders policy reviews, modifications in existing programs, or a clean break from the past, is inevitably seen as an opening for officials, politicians, and policy advocates in Washington who hope to influence the White House over the next four terms.

For the Senate Ukraine Caucus — a bipartisan group of senior lawmakers who have lobbied intensively for a closer U.S.-Ukraine relationship — increasing political, economic, and military support to the Ukrainian government is one of those priorities that the incoming Trump administration should move up on its list.

In a letter to President-Elect Trump, they write that it is absolutely critical for the United States to enhance its support to Kiev at a time when Vladimir Putin’s Russia continues to support a separatist movement on Ukrainian soil. “Quite simply,” the group writes, “Russia has launched a military land-grab in Ukraine that is unprecedented in modern European history. These actions in Crimea and other areas of eastern Ukraine dangerously upend well-established diplomatic, legal, and security norms that the United States and its NATO allies painstakingly built over decades.”

On this score, the senators are correct. Russia’s stealth invasion, occupation, and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula was for all intents and purposes a land-grab denounced not only by the United States but by the United Nations as the definition of a violation of state sovereignty and self-determination. 

But lets not kid ourselves; this isn’t the first time a stronger power will attempt to change the borders of a weaker neighbor, nor will it be the last. The Russians saw an opportunity to immediately exploit the confusion of the post-Viktor Yanukovychto its advantage. Moscow’s signing of the Minsk accords, an agreement that was designed to de-escalate the violence in Eastern Ukraine through mutual demobilization of heavy weapons along the conflict line and a transfer of border control from separatist forces back to the Ukrainian government, has been stalled to the point of irrelevance.

It is incontrovertible that, were it not for Russia’s military support and intervention in the summer of 2014, the Ukrainian army would likely have been able to defeat separatist units that were carving out autonomous “peoples’ republics” in the east — or at the very least, degrade rebel capabilities to such an extent that Kiev would be able to string more concessions at the negotiating table.

Yet as we should appropriately acknowledge Russia’s violations of international law and the U.N. Charter, U.S. policymakers and their European counterparts also need to recognize Ukraine is far more important for Moscow’s geopolitical position than Washington’s.

There is a reason why Vladimir Putin made the fateful decision in 2014 to plunge Russian forces into Ukraine, and it wasn’t because he was itching for a war of preemption. He deployed Russian forces across the Ukrainian border, despite the whirlwind of international condemnation and the western financial sanctions that were likely to accompany such a decision, because preserving a pro-Russia bent in the Ukraine body politic was just too important for Moscow’s regional position.

Grasping this reality in no way excuses Moscow’s behavior. It merely explains why the Russian government acted the way it did, and why further U.S. military assistance to the Ukrainian security forces would just as likely motivate Moscow to be more unhelpful in the country as it would to wind down their involvementIn fact, one could make a convincing case that providing hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to the Ukrainian government doesn’t help the situation at all, instead leading Kiev to delude itself into thinking that Washington will come to their immediate military aid in order to stabilize the battlefield.

Since 2015, the United States Congress has authorized $750 million in order to improve the defensive capabilities of the Ukrainian military and security forces, including through the provision of lethal defensive weapons in order to make Russia’s aggression in Ukraine more painful and unpopular within the Russian public. The Congress has followed up those funds with an additional $650 million ear-marked for the Ukrainians over the next two years, a hefty sum that the next administration would probably use as a message to the Russians that further territorial encroachment on Ukrainian territory would produce more casualties in their ranks.   

What the next administration needs to ask itself, however, is whether more money thrown at the Ukraine problem will be more or less likely to cause further violence in the country and turmoil for Ukraine’s elected government. Russia has demonstrated consistently that it will simply not permit a pro-western democratic government from emerging along its western border — and that if a pro-western government is formed in Kiev, Moscow will do its best to preserve a pro-Russian bent in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. Hundreds of millions of dollars in appropriations haven’t forced Russia to change that calculation so far; it’s downright unconscionable to think that hundreds of millions more will be any more successful. Indeed, every time Washington has escalated its rhetoric or authorized money for Ukraine’s military, the Russians have responded in equal terms.

The political crisis in Ukraine is far from resolved, in large measure of which is due to Russia’s own actions on the ground and its non-existent implementation of the Minsk peace agreement. But the situation in the east, while not fully peaceful by any means, is far less violent than at the war’s peak in 2015. Sometimes, not weighing in can be just as smart for the U.S. national interest as getting involved — a reflex that is has been the forte of Washington’s foreign policy establishment since the end of the Cold War.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on December 21, 2016. Read more HERE.