As the first anniversary of the Maidan coup approaches, eastern Ukraine remains enveloped in tragedy. On January 13 twelve people were killed when a passenger bus was shelled near the Ukrainian town of Volnovakha. This was followed by a rocket attack on Mariupol that killed thirty on January 24. Human Rights Watch has condemned both sides for their use of unguided rockets in populated areas. According to HRW’s latest report, at least 341 people were killed in the Donetsk region in January alone. All in all, the death toll in eastern Ukraine is now, according to the UN, fast approaching 5,400.
Meanwhile, reports that Kiev’s forces are close to capitulating in and around the town of Debaltseve continue to circulate. And into this volatile mix comes word that NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip M. Breedlove now supports sending arms to Kiev. That The New York Times report carrying this news appeared just as the Super Bowl was getting underway seems to indicate that the administration, using NATO as its proxy, wanted to avoid too much public scrutiny of the proposed change in policy. And a change in policy it would be; the question is: why now?
After all, President Obama has been reticent to wade deeper into the Ukrainian morass. One answer may be that he is finally buckling under to the pressure generated by the Washington foreign policy establishment’s media blitz that has been calling for the United States to become a party to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
This well-coordinated campaign to convince the president to intervene began last week when a series of reports and op-ed pieces calling for the US to arm Kiev began to appear in major American and British newspapers. In the January 27 edition of Financial Times, former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder proclaimed that “now is the time to provide lethal military aid to Ukraine.” This was followed shortly, on the 29, by a joint op-ed in The Washington Post by former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and former US ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer which urged the administration to give “the Ukrainian military sufficient means to make further aggression so costly that Putin and the Russian army are deterred from escalating the fight.”
On Sunday, February 1, the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal and the liberal-leaning Guardian each published op-eds urging the West to arm Kiev. And on Sunday night came the aforementioned report in The New York Times, which also made note of “an independent report” that was about to be issued “by eight former senior American officials” urging “the United States to send $3 billion in defensive arms and equipment to Ukraine, including anti-armor missiles, reconnaissance drones, armored Humvees and radars…”
And if the establishment’s media campaign to pressure the White House can be said to have a pièce de résistance, it is this report, titled Preserving Ukraine's Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do.
Published under the auspices of the the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution (of which Strobe Talbott is President), and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (of which Ivo Daalder is president), the report calls for the United States to become Kiev’s principal arms supplier.
In addition to calling for the United States to send $3 billion in “defensive arms and equipment” to Ukraine, the report also calls for the administration to “immediately change its policy from prohibiting lethal assistance to allowing provision of defensive military assistance” including “light anti-armor missiles.” Further, the report urges the United States to “approach Poland, the Baltic States, Canada and Britain regarding their readiness to provide lethal military assistance.”
The report’s recommendations are entirely objectionable and rest on two thoroughly questionable assumptions: that Mr. Putin is solely to blame for the unfolding catastrophe in the Donbas and that only American arms can stop him. Yet it is not at all hard to imagine that—if implemented—the report’s recommendations would represent a serious provocation to the Kremlin.
Further, the report’s findings are largely based on a so-called “fact finding” mission by the “eight former senior American officials” to Kiev and Brussels. One cannot help but wonder what kind of ‘facts’ the delegation expected to get from meetings with American militarists like Breedlove, in Brussels, or with the likes of Major General Aleksandr Sirskiy, the commander of the “Anti-Terror Operation,” in Kiev.
And then there is the matter of involving NATO in the first place. Ukraine, after all, is not a member of NATO. Nor is it—despite the best efforts of the hawks on Capitol Hill—even a “major non-NATO ally.” What possible justification could there be then for NATO intervention, besides the phantom threat Russia allegedly poses to the Baltic states?
We also need to register a moral objection to sending arms to Kiev by asking: Does sending more missiles into a war zone make it more or less likely that an even greater number of civilians will be killed? The answer is self-evident.
More worrying still is the fact that the authors of the report are members-in-good-standing of the Democratic foreign policy establishment. Should Hillary Clinton gain the Oval Office in 2016, Talbott would likely be the front-runner for secretary of state, while another of the report’s co-authors, Michele Flournoy, would be a leading candidate for secretary of defense. Since there is really no tangible difference between the recommendations of these (largely) Democratic party stalwarts and those being bandied about by hardline Republican in the Senate, Russia policy has truly become “bipartisan” in the very worst sense.
Will Obama give them the war they all so desperately seem to want? That now may depend on whether the no doubt large, though heretofore silent, number of peaceable-minded citizens will at last speak up and tell their elected representatives to resist the siren song of war—and say no to any measures that would further militarize the conflict in Ukraine.