By Daniel Urchick
On August 24, which is notably Independence Day in Ukraine, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited the embattled nation and signaled that the US government was considering providing defensive weapons to the Ukrainian military. This is something the Obama administration avoided for fear of escalating the conflict in the war-torn east, but Mattis’ recent comments in Kiev have called for a much-needed reexamination of the idea.
There are many legitimate concerns regarding the provisioning of lethal systems, such as Javelin antitank missiles, including: a Syria parallel, the lack of a comprehensive US policy, as well as the burning of one of the United States’ few “geopolitical cards” left in the region. Additionally, detractors claim the United States poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Ukraine previously, with little to show for it. While these concerns are truly important considerations, critics fail to offer alternate US policy options for Ukraine.
Providing anti-tank missiles to Ukraine may not be the optimal policy for the United States to push back against Russia; however, it is clear the lukewarm effort by the United States in assisting the beleaguered Ukrainian people cannot continue. The United States must take the momentum from this timely review on the decision to provide lethal aid to Ukraine and, instead, transform it to craft a more substantive and sustainable policy benefitting Ukraine, the entire region, and US interests.
It is the logical fallacy of false equivalency to compare the arming of Syrian rebels to providing lethal foreign military aid to the Ukrainian armed forces. The United States would not be supplying arms to rebel factions with dubious credentials, but rather a professional force that is battle-hardened, loyal to its government, and has shown willingness to reform. Worries regarding black-market sales and weapons trickling into less reputable territorial defense battalions can easily be addressed with monitoring. Lethal defensive aid should come with increased military transparency, auditing of stocks, training, oversight by third-party observers, and enhanced anti-corruption efforts. An independent “weapon proliferation risk board” should be established as a control mechanism to determine the pros and cons of specific lethal technologies or systems if supplied to Ukraine.
Any lethal aid policy should be well thought out regarding current implications and fourth-order, knock-on effects. It is naïve to believe the Department of Defense conducts the strictest and most thorough due diligence but, in the meantime, the United States can and must do something. If not anti-tank missiles immediately, what should the United States do to enhance Ukraine’s security situation? To start, the United States must start supplying higher quality non-lethal aid, such as better Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, more advanced unmanned aerial vehicles that are resistant to jamming, advanced electronic warfare equipment, and an enlarged training mission in Western Ukraine. We can hope that, at the very least, providing better quality non-lethal aid will be agreed upon by all sides of the debate.
The last major influx of non-lethal aid was provided by the Obama administration in 2014 and 2015. The equipment, such as obsolete bullet-proof vests and utility vehicles, initially given to the Ukrainian military was quickly discovered to be of low-quality and offered little combat protection. The Ukrainian perception of being given low quality scraps from the world’s most powerful military has eroded US influence and leverage in the region.
If a US troop commitment, although highly unlikely, was a policy outcome stemming from supplying lethal aid, forces would be able to rapidly redeploy from the Baltics to a Ukrainian conflict zone. But why would such an implausible escalation scenario be of concern when considering supplying lethal aid? Critics have stated that there is no need to worry about a Russian offensive since the conflict has devolved into static warfare. If there is no need to worry about a Russian offensive, then why should the United States worry about provoking a new offensive when supplying defensive aid solely as an extra layer of security for Ukraine’s sovereignty that removes the need for a troop commitment? As Mattis said in his initial remarks regarding supplying weapons to Ukraine, “Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor.” Aid will not provoke an offensive, but merely be a convenient excuse for what is already inevitable.
A final criticism of supplying lethal defensive aid, or any form of aid, to Ukraine is cost and return on investment. Opponents says that millions of US dollars have been poured into aid funds to Ukraine, yet it has failed to help. The cost of protecting US interests, reassuring allies, and pushing back Russian aggression is not and will never be a cheap endeavor. But proper, sustained investment in Ukraine with lethal defensive aid will reduce long-term costs of pushing back against Russia as it encroaches its near abroad. Supplying defensive lethal aid to Ukraine now will save precious lives fighting to protect a still-fledgling democracy. That surely is worth further investment.
Arguments against providing lethal defensive aid to Ukraine stem from poor logic riddled with contradictions. It is possible to construct a substantive and sustainable policy that enhances US interests and Ukrainian security. Something must change within the region, and the United States should ignore arguments that essentially call for the continued appeasement of Russia. To continue to let Ukraine languish is to embolden Russia, postponing a new peace for our time.
Daniel Urchick is the Eurasia & Eastern Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also a compliance contractor at the Department of Defense. Daniel earned his MA in Political Science from Central Michigan University and expects to receive his MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University in 2018.