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Arming Ukraine Still Doesn’t Make Strategic Sense

by Timothy Wessel

The most pressing policy question on Ukraine facing the Obama administration is whether or not the United States should arm Kiev—the answer is still no.

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Recent foreign policy developments in the Middle East and the tentative ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and separatist forces have taken the conflict in Ukraine out of the headlines in recent weeks.  But the conflict’s end is still out of sight, and the Obama administration has yet to commit to a particular course of action designed to hasten its resolution. The most pressing policy question remains: Should the United States arm Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists?

The answer is still no, for three reasons: Russia maintains escalation dominance over the United States; it is not clear that arming Ukraine would be an effective use of resources; and doing so diminishes the United States’ ability to leverage its economic superiority to manage Russian aggression. 

Russia has an escalation advantage over the United States in the Ukraine conflict, both politically and logistically because it has much more at stake. A Western-oriented Ukraine that shares a border with Russia is far more damaging to Moscow than it is beneficial to Washington and Brussels. At the same time, continued Russian influence in Ukraine would do little harm to the interests of the United States and its allies. If the United States were to arm Ukrainian government forces with lethal assistance, it would undoubtedly cause the Russians to amplify their efforts to sow discontent and chaos in the region.

Politically, the deck is stacked in Putin’s favor when it comes to escalation.  He is enjoying his highest approval ratings in years after annexing Crimea, and U.S. lethal aid to Kiev may only bolster the Russian fortress mentality on which Putin feeds. Meanwhile, the American public and lawmakers seem apathetic to the plight of Ukrainians compared to other pressing issues, including security developments in the Middle East and lingering economic concerns at home. Furthermore, the United States cannot count on the support of its European allies—including sympathetic Russians—for a military aid operation. These indispensable allies are in agreement that arming Ukraine is a bad idea.

Concurrent with political will, Russia has the logistical capabilities to escalate tensions in Ukraine if necessary. It already has troops and supplies massing on its border with Ukraine. Some are outright crossing it, and the Kremlin tacitly approves of Russian “volunteers” joining the separatists’ cause. Despite its own muscle flexing, the United States simply does not have the trans-Atlantic supply chain in place to consistently supply Ukrainian government forces at the rate necessary to counterbalance Russian support for the separatists.  

The questions in need of answers from proponents of arming Kiev are: What are U.S. strategic goals in the context of the conflict, and how will they be accomplished by arming Ukraine? Removing Russian manpower and support by arming Ukraine is a pipe dream. Supporters of lethal assistance display unfounded temerity in the United States’ ability to effectively arm a combatant to achieve the political ends it desires if they believe arming Ukraine will turn the tide in the conflict. There is simply no viable connection between arming the Ukrainian government and a conclusion of the war. 

Instead, the United States should leverage its superpower economic status to further strain the Russian economy and its leaders until the Kremlin backs down in Ukraine. Since the Cold War ended, the United States’ preeminent economic position has not been seriously threatened by rivaling ideologies or spoiler states. Even economies that are seemingly at odds with capitalism, from Venezuela to Iran, understand the benefit of connecting to the global economic system based on liberalized trade—a system in which the United States is still far-and-away the most important actor and regulator. The best way for the United States to deal with Russia, therefore, is to leverage its significant economic tools, namely multilateral sanctions, against Russian leaders and vital sectors of the Russian economy; the United States and its allies have already demonstrated the political will to effectively employ them.

The trouble with sanctions regimes is the amount of time they take to garner tangible results when compared with military force. The atrophy of an economy is a slower, less obvious process when compared to daily casualty counts. Nevertheless, economic tools can be more politically viable and effective in the long run (e.g., the recent framework nuclear deal with Iran). Committing to further sanctions while refusing to arm Ukraine does not constitute appeasement; it represents a nuanced understanding of the issue and a willingness to leverage relative strengths, resisting Russia’s attempt to escalate the conflict militarily.

It is necessary that Washington and its Western allies push to ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty as it strives to embrace Western ideals and institutions. To this end, the current situation—a tenuous ceasefire—benefits the United States and its allies. It allows the United States to continue applying sanctions on Russia’s economy and leaders while violence declines in relative terms. If Russia escalates the situation militarily, it will be far easier to garner the political will necessary to combat Russia’s territorial ambition through future multilateral military assistance.

Conversely, preemptively arming Ukraine would play into Russia’s relative strengths of regional political and logistical superiority, risking inflaming the conflict and losing valuable land, allies, and, most importantly, lives. The United States must operate pragmatically in the current political environment and maintain the course of multilateral economic pressure on Russia instead of opting for a ham-fisted, arms-assistance strategy with unclear goals and questionable efficacy.  

Photo: Tavrian/Wikimedia Commons


Tim Wessel is an Economic Research Analyst who specializes in capital and labor markets.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.


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  • commented 2015-04-28 11:54:12 -0400
    Sanctions only work if the target nation feels the sting enough to back down. Fact of the matter is, the US already has ongoing sanctions against Russia that have been in place for over a year, and since that time we have only seen continued Russian incursions. The sanctions regime in place currently targets those who are involved in breaching the sovereignty of Ukraine, which is essentially comprised of Putin’s inner circle and various other Russian leaders. This is not enough, and has only served to fuel nationalism within the Russian populace.

    Furthermore, Russia is not a typical sanctions target. Russia has massive energy reserves in country and an economy that dwarfs those of other sanctioned nations such as Iran or North Korea, meaning nothing short of a sanctions regime that looks more like an embargo will work. Even if such a massive embargo would occur, and it probably wont, there is spotty evidence as to whether or not sanctions even work. Massive sanctions regimes in North Korea, a country that has a domestic economy that is nothing in comparison to that of Russia, still cloistered itself from the world and obtained nuclear weapons in the face of international sanctions. The sanctions regime against Iran may have brought them to the table for now, but during the time when the harshest sanctions regimes were in place they made more progress on their nuclear program than ever before. Sanctions only work if you are willing to go all in on them, especially against an economic powerhouse like Russia, and given the regional dependency of its neighbors on Russian exports, that is unlikely to happen.

    Even if the best case scenario were to occur with sanctions, it is unlikely Russia would remove its presence in Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. At best, there would be a ceasefire and Russia would still get what it wants, setting a dangerous precedent for other Eastern European countries. Sanctions certainly have a place in this effort, but they are not a cure-all. Arming the Ukrainians is not a cure-all either, but it is one of many tools that can be used to ensure Ukrainian sovereignty and also take pressure of US defense commitments that are already spreading US forces thin. Neither arms support nor sanctions should be ruled out, but neither is a complete solution on its own.