Russia and Eastern Europe

Brookings Debates Arming Ukraine

By Cody M. Poplin
Friday, February 6, 2015, 8:02 PM

Recent comments by Secretary of Defense-nominee Ashton Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry suggest that the United States is edging closer to arming the Ukrainian army. In response, a growing debate has kicked up on the main Brookings site about whether the United States should provide defensive arms to Ukraine.  If you are catching up on the debate over the weekend, below is a quick preview of four pieces from Brookings fellows on the future of European security.

The debate began with an op-ed  by Steven Pifer and Strobe Talbot previewing an accompanying report, and later continued on the Brookings website. They write:

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...

Later, Brookings Fellow Jeremy Shapiro dissented. He begins:

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...

Tim Boersma, a Fellow in Energy Security and Climate Initiative, issued a European view on sending arms to Ukraine.

Various flaws in this proposal have been pointed out already, including by other Brookings colleagues. In my view, the most questionable assumption that the authors seem to make, is that by increasing the amount of body bags being sent to Moscow, the Russian regime will be incentivized to negotiate peace. But for a European, and although I agree with many of the arguments already made, even the critics miss the central point. We are talking about a possible full-fledged war on Europe’s very doorstep. Many Americans seem awfully cavalier about risking that war in somebody else’s house. The authors of this report do not appear to have discussed their proposals with any European national officials outside NATO or even seriously considered European views on the subject. The rather stiff reaction of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the idea implies that that may have been a mistake. The French defense minister dismissed the idea of sending lethal weapons too...

Back in the Washington Post, Senior Fellows Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy echoed Boersma and Shapiro, arguing that arming the Ukrainian military could push Putin into regional war.

Increasing the Ukrainian army’s fighting capacity, the thinking goes, would allow it to kill more rebels and Russian soldiers, generating a backlash in Russia and ultimately forcing the Russian president to the negotiating table.

We strongly disagree. The evidence points in a different direction. If we follow the recommendations of this report, the Ukrainians won’t be the only ones caught in an escalating military conflict with Russia.

In the jargon of geopolitics, Putin enjoys “escalation dominance” in Ukraine: Whatever move we make, he can match it and go further. In August, when it looked as though Ukraine might rout the rebels, Putin increased the stakes and countered the Ukrainian military. Drawing on those lessons, some Russian security analysts are now pushing for a preemptive invasion of Ukraine, arguing that Russia should go all the way to Kiev before the West takes further action. One recent such plan suggested that Moscow was losing momentum in the conflict and should not waste more time on fruitless negotiations. The Western press coverage of the issue of lethal weapons can only convince those in Moscow pushing “full war and invasion now” that their approach is correct.