Why the West Should Arm Ukraine

For the first time since World War II, a European nation’s borders were forcibly altered by an aggressive neighbor. Yet the United States and most European countries balk from using the word “invasion” to describe the presence of thousands of Russian troops in Ukrainian territory. Several European countries also pushed back at tougher sanctions against Russia. If European countries are afraid of “self-sanctioning” through tougher restrictions on Russia, there is another recourse that can deter and punish Russia without the necessary economic backlash – arm Ukraine.

Important political players in both the United States and European Union are already pushing for military aid to Ukraine. In the United States, high-ranking members of Congress are becoming more local in their support for military assistance. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the Chairman on the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, called for President Obama to provide Ukraine with direct military assistance following a recent fact-finding mission to the country. “We need to give the Ukrainians the wherewithal to defend themselves,” he said. “I know we’ve provided them with night vision goggles, but it doesn’t do much good to see the enemy and not be able to stop them.”

Even so, opposition to arming Ukraine is still strong, despite Russia’s ever more open aggression. Following the Ukrainian government’s claim that several NATO countries have begun supplying Ukraine with lethal aid, several countries strongly denied the assertion. “We shouldn’t even create the impression that with weapons shipments and strengthening the Ukrainian army we could create a solution,” stated German Chancellor Angela Merkel on August 30, 2014. Opponents say that arming Ukraine will incense Russia, encourage Ukraine to break the ceasefire, and further hurt innocent civilians.  Besides, Ukraine can never match Russian armament, no matter how much aid the West provides.

The West shouldn’t be afraid of enraging Russia. This has already happened. Europe and the United States must respond to reality, and enhance the Ukrainians’ capability to defend themselves against future Russian aggression. Putin is vengeful and petty, but not irrational. What Putin understands is force. If the West arms Ukraine, and threatens to deepen cooperation, Putin knows that the price will be exponentially higher. This may be an unacceptable price for a regime that is already struggling to cover up its war dead.

While it’s true that the Ukrainian military is unable to defeat the Russians in a symmetrical war against regular Russian troops, the war in the Donbas is largely asymmetrical. Russia provides clandestine support for rebels, steadily enhancing its direct engagement in the conflict. Providing Ukrainian forces with high-quality defensive weapons, such as anti-tank weapons, will greatly escalate the cost to Russian forces of further direct intervention in Ukraine. In this way, the provision of material aid to the Ukrainians might actually support peace, rather than increase the likelihood of war. If Ukraine is sufficiently armed to defend itself, the Russian military and Russian-backed militants are less likely to break the cease fire. Russia is less likely to re-start hostilities if it considers future losses as unacceptable. The Russian government is loath to admit its own prevarications, and Russian opinion polls consistently demonstrate that most Russians are opposed to direct engagement in Eastern Ukraine. According to the Moscow-based polling agency Levada Center, a plurality of Russians (43%) says that they would not support Putin in a Russian war with Ukraine.

Lastly, there’s no reason to think that supplying Ukraine with weapons will disproportionately harm civilians in the Donbas. The biggest risks to civilians will occur if either side breaks the cease fire. If supplying Ukraine raises the costs of Russian escalation, Russia and Russian-backed forces are consequently less likely to break the agreement. In sending regular Russian forces into Ukraine last month, Putin demonstrated that he is unwilling to allow his proxies in Ukraine to suffer a complete defeat. Even with Western-supplied weapons, Ukraine understands that it will never win in a direct engagement with Russian ground forces and that negotiation is the only way out of the conflict.

The West can avoid the negative economic effects of sanctions, yet still deter further Russian aggression, by providing Ukraine with high-quality defensive weapons. Such assistance might prove crucial in the defense of Ukraine’s sovereign territory, while also lower the chances of further Russian intervention in Ukraine by increasing the risks posed to Russia.


Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center