Support for Arming Ukraine Rises, Risks Remain

The United States are thinking again about giving weapons to Ukraine, even if it could provoke Russia.

The United States are rethinking whether to send weapons to Ukraine in order to help the country fight a Russian-backed insurgency in the southeast, senior administration officials said on Monday.

“It’s getting a fresh look,” one official told the Reuters news agency. “Where things will end up, we don’t know.”

The reevaluation comes days after eight former American officials, including Ivo Daalder, the former permanent representative to NATO, and James Stavridis, the former chief NATO commander, called on Western powers to provide military support to Ukraine in a report (PDF).

President Barack Obama has also come under pressure from senior lawmakers, including members of his own Democratic Party, who urged him on Tuesday to “rapidly” increase assistance to the Ukrainian government in the form of antitank weapons, armored jeeps and counterbattery radars.

The United States already provide binoculars, body armor and small boats. The administration has delayed on providing more lethal equipment.

Arming the Ukrainian army could escalate the East-West standoff in Ukraine where Western powers say Russia is actively supporting a separatist uprising. Since occupying and annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March last year, Russian troops and weapons have found their way into the southeast of the country. However, Russia still denies it is involved in the war there.

The European Union and the United States responded to Russia’s seizure of the Crimea by imposing economic sanctions that are likely to help push Russia’s economy into recession this year. But the sanctions do not appear to have deterred its president, Vladimir Putin. Instead, he seems to have ramped up his support for the separatists in recent weeks.

The Ukrainian army has proven a poor match for the rebels and would be even harder pressed to fight off an overt Russian intervention in the conflict.

Western countries are unlikely to give Ukraine the amount and sort of weapons it needs to completely put down the rebellion in the Donbas region for fear of triggering a wider conflict with Russia, its former Soviet master.

But they could at least help blunt Russia’s offensive, argues The Washington Post. The newspaper cautions against inaction for fear of provoking Russia, pointing out that it has steadily stepped up its aggression in the absence of a military response. Russia could interpret the West’s failure to help Ukraine as weakness and next test NATO’s resolve elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

Eugene Rumer, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment, rejects that advice, writing in the Financial Times that it would be of little help send Western weapons to Ukrainian troops not trained in their use. Were the United States to also deploy trainers to help Ukraine’s soldiers use the weapons, “they will be sending Americans into a warzone with Russia as the enemy. It will be hard to pretend then that America is not a party to the conflict.”

The best possible outcome is a frozen conflict, according to Rumer. “A free and independent Ukraine, a solid defense of the European order and a firm rebuff of Russian aggression are worthy goals,” he admits. “But they do not absolve us of our responsibility to consider the consequences of our actions. The current proposal to arm Ukraine does not meet that standard.”