Trump’s upcoming mistake on Ukraine

By Daniel DePetris

According to reports, the Trump administration is in the closing stages of recommending the export of $47 million worth of defensive lethal equipment to Ukraine. The package will reportedly include a cache of Javelin anti-tank missiles, weapons that would reliably and efficiently disable the hundreds of tanks that the Russian-supported separatists have acquired since the conflict began.

To advocates who believe that sending weapons to the Ukrainian government will bloody Russia’s nose and teach President Vladimir Putin a message, this pending decision couldn’t have come soon enough. Arming Kiev is a popular prescription supported by many lawmakers in both parties.

Popular, however, doesn’t mean smart.

Instead of pressuring Moscow to de-escalate and pull military assistance to the separatists, pouring more weapons into the war zone is likely to increase the body count and put the U.S. on the hook for more intervention if events on the ground get worse.

Before the White House signs off on this proposal, they should keep the following in mind:

1.Ukraine is—and always will be—more important to Russia than it is to the U.S.: While it may be uncomfortable to admit, the political orientation of Ukraine and how Ukrainians choose to manage (or mismanage) their economy and political system doesn’t directly affect the United States.  As the Charles Koch Institute’s Will Ruger and City College of New York’s Professor Rajan Menon wrote last month, “Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the United States.”

To Washington, Ukraine is a post-Soviet state whose political leadership and systemic corruption over the past quarter of a century have severely handicapped the country’s economic outlook and productivity. While Ukrainians outside of the political establishment and many of politicians in and out of Kiev hope to work toward a more democratic and accountable form of government, U.S. national security interests in Europe are not wedded to whether Kiev succeeds or fails in this project. At best, Ukraine is a large but peripheral country in Europe that the U.S. doesn’t have a treaty obligation to defend during if its territory is invaded.

 Ukraine is outside of NATO and has historically been much more connected to Russia than to Europe.  A wholesale westernization of Ukrainian politics, from associations with the European Union (EU) to offering a possible membership bid in NATO, would destroy Putin’s grand strategy of making Moscow as relevant a player in the international system today as it was during the Cold War. Indeed, the possibility of Ukraine increasing its trade relationship and political direction with the U.S. and Europe was enough of a national security threat to Putin that he was willing to deploy Russian soldiers, paratroopers, and special forces on Ukrainian territory to carve out a zone of influence and prevent Kiev from pursuing an western-friendly foreign policy. A couple dozen anti-tank missiles from the U.S. won’t change Putin’s calculus of Ukraine’s value as a geopolitical buffer to a much stronger and wealthier NATO alliance.

2. Putin will likely increase, not decrease, support to the separatists: In an August editorial for the Washington Post, former National Security Council official Charles Kupchan argued that “the notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin would give up his hold on Donbass [Eastern Ukraine] if a few more Russians come home in body bags is to dramatically misread the Kremlin.” Yet this is what undergirds the arguments from proponents of lethal assistance to the Ukrainians, confident that Moscow will react in the way they anticipate.

Why they are so self-assured of their own assumptions is impossible to explain, because the three and a half year long war has shown that the Russians will escalate their involvement and investment in the war if doing so is required to prevent Kiev’s victory. In fact, to expect that Moscow would respond to more dead Russian troops by suing for a peace settlement in Eastern Ukraine is to completely ignore how Putin has behaved throughout this conflict.

When separatist units in Donetsk and Luhansk were losing ground to pro-Kiev forces earlier in the war, Russia came to the rescue to forestall their defeat. In the summer of 2014, when pro-Ukrainian troops were retaking towns that Kiev previously lost, columns of Russian tanks, artillery, heavy weapons, and Russian soldiers crossed the border into Ukraine to ensure that there were no more Ukrainian territorial advances in areas viewed as too strategic to give up. When the stalemated battle in the city of Ilovaisk was slowly moving Kiev’s way, conventional Russian soldiers and weapons were fast tracked to the frontline in what would turn out to be one of the deadliest days for Ukrainian troops in the war.

Months later, when the separatists were in jeopardy of retreating from the strategic town of Delbatseve, Russian tanks were deployed and quickly forced an undermanned, disorganized, demoralized, and tired contingent of Kiev forces to withdraw. The capture of Delbatseve would have been far bloodier and would have taken much longer to end without Russian aid.

To think Putin would respond to lethal U.S. defense shipments by doing the exact opposite of what he did in those two specific instances is an assertion without backing. For Putin to react in a way that is any less forceful would be a betrayal of an escalatory doctrine that has thus far worked to maintain the separatists’ balance of power in the war.

3. It may spoil any chance at a U.N. peacekeeping mission: Moscow has insisted that the only way the war in Ukraine can end peacefully is if representatives of the Ukrainian government and the separatist people’s republics abide by their commitments under the 2014 and 2015 Minsk protocols. Up until a few months ago, Putin hesitated and indeed opposed any international peacekeeping mission in the Donbas that could upset the Minsk agreements.

This September, however, Putin changed his tune. He openly broached the subject of armed U.N. troops defending Europe’s monitors who are tasked with recording ceasefire violations along the contact line pitting pro and anti-Ukrainian forces. After a call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin softened his earlier concern about permitting peacekeepers access deeper into separatist-controlled territory. The concept is now being discussed within the Trump administration and between the U.S. and Russian special envoys to the conflict, a suggestion that the idea is more than just a Russian attempt to distract.

A White House authorization to send lethal equipment to Kiev, however, could very well stop that dialogue in its tracks and provide Putin with another excuse to delay and dither.  Why the U.S. would escalate the war when there may finally be an opening to explore a U.N.-enforced cessation of hostilities leading to political talks is difficult to comprehend.

More U.S. involvement in Ukraine could lead the Russians to retaliate in any number of ways and in any number of fora. At the Security Council, Russia could grind the chamber’s work to a halt by the use of its veto power (blocking U.S.-led efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program). It could expand its military and intelligence cooperation with Iran when the Trump administration’s entire policy for the region is dependent on containing Iranian expansionism.

The costs to the U.S. of turning Ukraine into a proxy war against Russia overshadow the benefit of increasing Moscow’s casualty count. Sending lethal equipment to Kiev will do very little to begin bringing the conflict to a resolution. Sometimes the best course of action the U.S. can take is to not get more involved on issues peripheral to American grand strategy.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Reuters on November 28, 2017. Read more HERE.