7 February 2015
A group of distinguished scholars and former practitioners from the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, the Center for a New American Security, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs have recently published a report (*) which outlines the background to the crisis over Ukraine and offers specific recommendations for steps that Washington and NATO should take to strengthen Ukraine’s defenses and thereby enhance its ability to deter further Russian aggression.
The most important of the group’s recommendations is that the U.S. government should immediately change its policy from prohibiting lethal assistance to allowing provision of defensive military assistance, which may include lethal assistance. The report also argues that since bolstering Ukraine’s defenses should not be a U.S.-only responsibility, NATO members should also increase their military assistance to Ukraine, with a view to meeting the priority needs identified above. It is suggested in this connection that NATO allies who have former Soviet/Warsaw Pact equipment and weapons systems similar to or compatible with those now operated by the Ukrainian military should consider contributing those to Kiev’s defense capabilities.
The report comes at a time when the Obama administration is reportedly looking at different options including the provision of lethal assistance to Ukraine.
“All options are on the table” has now become a familiar statement in the context of conflict management. Yet providing the Ukrainian Army with lethal defensive assistance should not be one of those options for the following reasons:
• The difference between “offensive” and “defensive” military hardware is not black and white. The distinction has little political value.
• Lethal Western military assistance to the Ukrainian Army will prompt Russia to give more to the rebels. This will result in further escalation.
• The West will not be able to match Russia in such a competition.
• A protracted conventional war on Russia’s periphery will entail multiple military difficulties for the West. Western public opinion will not support it. It will be costly but not winnable.
• Transfer of former Soviet/Warsaw Pact military equipment by Eastern European and Baltic members of NATO to Ukraine will lead to problems between Russia and its former “reluctant allies” with Russian minorities and further destabilize the region. Moscow should not be given such an opportunity.
• Ukrainian economy desperately needs external support. The West cannot finance the economy as well as protracted war.
Germany and France have made it clear that sending lethal military assistance to Ukraine is not a good idea. And, they have again taken the initiative to pave the way for a political/diplomatic solution, the first step of which has to be an enduring cease-fire.
This initiative is important for three reasons:
First, the visit by President Hollande and Chancellor Merkel to Moscow may alleviate Russian frustration with Western jubilation in the face of Russia’s current economic difficulties.
Second, it puts the ball fairly and squarely in President Putin’s court. This may help convince the Russian public opinion that it is time to de-escalate. The alternative should be more sanctions by the West.
And third, while the visit emphasizes the European dimension of the conflict, Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Washington next week will help avoid the impression that Europe-US differences over Ukraine are deepening.
It is understood that the two European leaders presented President Putin a proposal to revive the Minsk cease-fire agreement with better safeguards. The Russians may well wish to take this opportunity to expand the areas under rebel control. Every compromise requires some give-and-take. Yet, there are limits. Regardless of the outcome, the West needs to convince Kiev to reduce its anti-Russian rhetoric and exercise better control over its army and volunteers.
The West and Russia need to reach a modus vivendi if a good number of pressing problems which the world faces today are to be settled or at least managed through political/diplomatic channels. This has to start now and in Ukraine because should the French-German initiative fail there may not be another one for quite a while.
(*) Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do.