In recent weeks, reports have emerged that the Pentagon and the State Department have drawn up plans to send what are invariably (and misleadingly) referred to as “defensive” weapons to Ukraine. President Trump’s newly appointed special representative for Ukraine, Ambassador Kurt Volker, said the administration is considering sending anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to front-line Ukrainian forces in the Donbass [eastern Ukraine] to enable our ally to “defend itself if Russia were to take further steps against Ukrainian territory.”
The National Security Task Force of the Friends of Ukraine Network, a bipartisan coalition of former government officials, including former NATO supreme allied commanders Philip Breedlove and Wesley Clark, have called for the Trump administration to send tanks and drones to Ukraine, in order to, in the words of one member, “increase the pressure on Russia to negotiate seriously on implementing the Minsk agreements.”
The renewed calls to send weapons to Ukraine recall the early months of 2015 when there was a concerted push to arm Ukraine from the foreign-policy establishment, including President Obama’s own appointees at the Pentagon and State Department—in conjunction with scholars from the Brookings Institution, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the Atlantic Council—in order to both undermine the second round of the Minsk cease-fire agreement (which was being negotiated at that time) and to stave off what became a military debacle for Kiev at Debaltseve.
Yet, in one of his rare departures from what he derisively called the US foreign-policy establishment “blob,” President Obama resolutely refused to send “defensive” weapons to Kiev, though he did sign on to the creation of multinational military training base in western Ukraine at Yaroviv. (In this context it is worth noting that the 2015 Brookings-Atlantic Council plan to arm Ukraine was opposed by, among others, Brookings Russia scholar Fiona Hill, who now serves as Trump’s lead Russia adviser on the NSC.)
Then as now, arguments for arming Ukraine are based on disingenuous interpretations of past agreements and an equally reckless disregard for the present circumstances.
There is a real danger that the introduction of US arms could be the end of the Minsk II cease-fire agreement and could derail the latest push by Moscow to introduce UN peacekeepers to the region.
Of last week’s proposal by Russia to send UN peacekeepers to patrol the front line, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that “this offer of a UN mission in eastern Ukraine shows that Russia has effected a change in its policies that we should not gamble away.”
Yet sending arms might incentivize escalation on the part of both parties to the conflict. Last week, at the BRICS summit in China, Russia’s Vladimir Putin warned that “The delivery of weapons to a conflict zone doesn’t help peacekeeping efforts, but only worsens the situation.”
And for its part, it was Kiev, not Moscow, that was widely seen to be responsible for the latest round of fighting in eastern Ukraine.
But Trump’s envoy Volker dismissed such concerns in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in July, saying, “I hear these arguments that it’s somehow provocative to Russia or that it’s going to embolden Ukraine to attack. These are just flat-out wrong.”
We also might pause to recall what happened in Syria, where the weapons provided to the anti-Assad rebels by the CIA and Pentagon ended up in the hands of radical jihadis.
In the case of Ukraine, the weapons could quite conceivably fall into the hands of armed militias like the far-right Azov battalion.
“The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment,” the head of the battalion Andriy Biletsky has written, “is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival.” It is, said Biletsky, “a crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.” One Azov battalion member told Sky News that “To become an Azov fighter you have to be a proper white man.”
That aside, the enthusiasm for sending weapons remains undiminished in some quarters. Former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst has dismissed the concerns of those whom he dismisses as “armchair strategists” who argue against sending weapons because “Moscow has a greater interest in Ukraine than Washington [does], and Ukraine’s government is corrupt and undeserving of such support.” According to Herbst, “The most cost-efficient way to counter the Kremlin’s revisionist policies is to increase the cost of its aggression in Ukraine.”
Herbst also argues that “United States made a commitment to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity when it gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994. Providing defensive weapons to Ukraine will honor that commitment and raise the cost of the war for Moscow.”
Not everyone agrees. Former State Department officials Jeremy Shapiro and Samuel Charap have written that, actually, “There is no such obligation in the Budapest Memorandum.” They point out that “Strobe Talbott who led the negotiations on the memorandum, said at the time: ‘This [memorandum] does not mean the U.S. is willing to come to the defense of Ukraine if it is attacked militarily’ (Agence France Presse, November 18, 1994). Any side offer of such a commitment made to the Ukrainians by U.S. diplomats and not notified to Congress has no standing.”
An American humanitarian-aid worker in Donbass recently asked, “[I]f this move instead triggers escalation and subjects Donbass civilians to a new round of death and misery, will proponents still be paying attention?” In the end, sending weapons would be a destabilizing move that would further jeopardize Minsk II, put an already exposed and vulnerable civilian population at risk, and could spark a wider war. As such, Trump would in this instance be wise to follow the example set by his predecessor.