Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Should the United States Give Lethal Aid to Ukraine?

by Micah Zenko
February 2, 2015

Members of the Ukrainian armed forces drive armored vehicles in the town of Volnovakha, eastern Ukraine, on January 18, 2015. (Ermochenko/Courtesy Reuters)


When reading the thoughtful report, Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do, ask: What political objective does it intend to achieve, and will the recommended policies achieve it? That objective is: “The United States and NATO should seek to create a situation in which the Kremlin considers the option of further military action in or against Ukraine too costly to pursue. The combination of closing off that option plus the cumulative impact of Western economic sanctions could produce conditions in which Moscow decides to negotiate a genuine settlement that allows Ukraine to reestablish full sovereignty over Donetsk and Luhansk.” Does the lethal and nonlethal assistance that the report recommends providing to Ukraine create this “situation” or produce these “conditions?” (There is another less concrete political objective—“preserving the credibility of security assurances for the future”—which credibility hawks can attempt to defend.)

The report makes a convincing case, based upon the authors’ discussions in the region and their net assessment, that these military capabilities are indeed needed by the Ukrainian armed forces and could change the battlefield calculus, assuming that separatist and Russian forces themselves remain relatively static.

But will the death of a few more separatists and destruction of Russian equipment achieve the political objective—changing the calculus of Putin’s thinking in order to compel him to endorse a genuine settlement. This is improbable, and there are two more troubling and foreseeable pathways that could unfold:  it demonstrates that Ukraine is actually not that important to the transatlantic alliance, and this limited capability is the maximum of what the United States and NATO will do (this seems most likely); or, it triggers Putin to double-down on his support for separatist forces and non-uniformed Russian security forces in Ukraine to firmly establish facts on the ground before those capabilities are fully integrated into Ukrainian security forces, which could take nine to twelve months (this escalation concern seems less likely).

(The report hints that the lethal aid should be rushed to deter “a new offensive [that] could be launched once the spring arrives in April/May.” This would be a highly ambitious, if not unprecedented, political and logistical effort.) Either the demonstration of the relative unimportance of Ukraine, or Putin’s escalation would result in a strategic failure in that it did not prevent “further military action in or against Ukraine.”

Moreover, for a report premised on deterring further Russian aggression beyond Ukraine, it asks little of America’s NATO allies. “The U.S. government should approach Poland, the Baltic States, Canada and Britain regarding their readiness to provide lethal military assistance.” Presumably, these conversations have already taken place and, judging by the public comments of allied foreign and defense ministry officials, there may not be a commitment from them to provide lethal assistance. Notably, the authors do not propose approaching France or Germany, since their responses would be “no.” Furthermore, if European allies and Canada refrain, the report implies that the United States should provide this assistance, training, and sustainment on its own.

The one specific recommendation that does square is “electronic counter-measures for use against opposing UAVs.” The Russians have tremendous redundancy built into such line-of-sight communications for small clusters of tactical drones. Ukraine would require a great deal of pinpoint jamming capabilities (and training) to effectively do this, and not fratricide their own communications. The enduring solution to preventing the Russian drone from collecting such battlefield intelligence—that supports their artillery and rocket fire—is to shoot down them down.

The reason the report may not recommend shooting them down is the distinct possibility that it would result in further escalation. Recall the April 20, 2008, incident when a Georgian drone flying beyond a UN-monitored cease-fire line in the separatist region of Abkhazia was shot down by a Russian MIG-29 fighter jet.  Less than one month prior, Abkhaz forces had similarly shot down a Georgian drone off the coast of Ochamchira with surface-to-air missiles.  As the European Union fact-finding mission later determined, these drone incursions were “one of the sources of tension” that resulted in the military conflict that broke out between Russia and Georgia that August.

This important report will be eagerly devoured on Capitol Hill, as there have been several Pentagon and U.S. European Command briefings for staffers and congressional members on what lethal and non-lethal aid the United States could provide to Ukraine and within what time frame. Whether there has been equal thinking about what impact, if any, this lethal aid would have on Putin’s calculus to endorse a ceasefire and eventual settlement is unclear. Many congressional members say that Putin has not been deterred, but he has, to some degree, because if he wanted to he could order the full-scale invasion of the entirety of Ukrainian territory. That he has kept Russian direct personnel support for the separatists’ brutal aggression relatively small (1,000 military and intelligence personnel by recent NATO estimates) demonstrates that his decisions are rational (to him) and done with some awareness of the likely consequences.

It is conventional wisdom among these congressional members, though less so among staffers, that Putin will be deterred if just enough lethal aid is provided to Ukraine. But how much is that, exactly, and what if he is not deterred, since he retains an estimated forty-thousand well-trained ground troops and fleets of air-to-ground attack aircraft just across the border in Russia, which he could unleash quickly?

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Steven

    Should we? Yes but will we and how soon is the real importance. Look for parallels with Syria. We dragged our feet and now we have an overt campaign that is forecasted to take a few years or more. More importantly than arming Ukraine is training them in proper counter insurgency techniques. If we do train, advise and assist the Ukrainians, it will be by definition a proxy war. I am for arming the Ukrainians but not unilaterally. If Russia sees only America supporting the Ukrainians it will infuriate the Kremlin more than already and with that will deteriorate already very low relations. Have a unified NATO or more importantly from a cultural stand point, European Union backing the Ukraine. That action will stand for something more so then unilateral American support. It will show Russia and the Ukrainian separatists that its not neo imperialism but a coalition dedicated to deterrence. If the coalition doesn’t act then further land acquisition will continue with further gains in the Ukraine and possibly into other nations in eastern Europe.

  • Posted by alffie

    Its all well and good to arm Ukraine, but what are you gonna do when one of your US missiles lands in Donetsk and kills a dozen or so pensioners? Talk about giving Putin a free kick!!! Good luck denying that war crime!

  • Posted by stronginva

    Ukraine is of no military importance to the US. Nor does it have resources that can’t be found elsewhere. Put another way, if Ukraine were to magically disappear, the US would be unaffected. Ukraine is not worth the risk. It is doubtful Putin wants the burden of an impoverished Ukraine. However, the eastern section produces about 8% of Ukraine’s GDP. I would surmise that is his goal.

  • Posted by Athur

    I really would like to talk with someone to hear opinions about the United States position in this conflict if someone have rime please send me a mail, am representing the delegation of the United States in a debate

  • Posted by Arthur

    Sorry I forgot my mail, is art_bass1617@hotmail.com

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    I concur with most of the above comments. It seems you have poked more than a few holes in this balloon. And as I have said elsewhere, competent diplomacy is not about balloons.

    When it comes to foreign policy, the Obama White House just does not seem to know what it is doing. To the extent it does, it has little appetite for the task.

    Like the civil war in Syria, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a foreign affairs problem which the President and his staff wish would simply go away. His approach has been tentative, overcautious, over-deliberate, time consuming, and half-hearted. He only comes around to decisions when he feels they have been made for him, or when he judges he has nothing to lose.

    At the outset of this trouble, everyone could see that the Ukrainians were no match for the Russians and in great need of military assistance. Anyone could have also concluded that Russia will ultimately win this struggle without it. And yet, President Obama and his team flatly ruled out the possibility that the US would provide such help. Like Syria, everything it does decide to do with respect to Ukraine, it has done with deep reluctance.

    There is a reason for this. It is that there is no affirmative policy goal that the President wishes to pursue in Ukraine, for the further reason, as stated above, that it is of absolutely no importance to the United States.

    Had the Administration wished to see that Ukraine received arms, it could have seen that it did quickly, a long time ago, quietly, by backdoor means, without great fanfare, and without having it come directly from the inventories of the US Department of Defense, and thus with a seal of approval making this a case of direct intervention by our country in this conflict.

    To wage this war, the Ukrainians need hardware they can use now, without lengthy courses of instruction by US military advisers or employees from Raytheon. That means Russian arms, not US material. There is plenty of it to be had around the world, for a price. I hear, for instance, that the Indians are not so happy with their Sukoi fighter-bombers. And I understand Croatia is looking to upgrade to F-16s.

    All that Ukraine needs from the US and or the EU therefore is just money. That means that this much publicized push to have the US deliver new arms to Ukraine is completely unnecessary and indeed very unhelpful, casting as it does, a spotlight on European and US weakness, discord, and indecision.

    One is therefore left to question what purpose such an action could possibly serve. No good one, to be sure, for all of the reasons mentioned above. If it ’twere done, ’twere best be done quickly. And if it were, its only practical value would be as a statement to Russia that “we are not afraid of you”. What a costly, risky and foolhardy thing to do for such a vain reason.

    There are better ways of getting that message across, and as indicated, of assisting Ukraine.

    If the US administration truly wants to play rough with Vladimir Putin, for instance, it could take the move of closing off Russian banks from the SWIFT exchange. Another thing it might do would be to turn back Russian naval supply ships bound for Syria. That would be a match we could easily win. And it might also serve the useful goal of avoiding and all-out Middle East war, and the destruction of Israel.

    R/s, TPH

  • Posted by Vladimir Grebenyuk

    Germany has the highest solar power generation per capita in the world. Ukraine has higher solar irradiation potential than Germany.
    Arms may be needed, and money will help. But in the long run the best defense for Ukraine and the best weapons to be sent there would be renewable technology – to make it energy independent of Russia.
    The same by the way is true for the rest of Europe – if they would not depend so much on Russian oil and gas, they wouldn’t be so stand up for one of their own.

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