Washington Mulls Arming Ukrainian Government
The Obama administration may finally be coming around to a proactive policy toward the ongoing civil war in Ukraine.
As Russian-backed separatists renew their attacks against government-held positions, American and NATO officials are debating supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine for the first time. NATO Super Allied Commander Philip M. Breedlove, a four-star General in the US Air Force, is reportedly a proponent of providing Kiev with defensive weaponry, per a report by The New York Times.
Throughout the civil war – which began in April 2014 when armed separatists seized swaths of territory in eastern Ukraine – the White House has limited military aid to Kiev to “non-lethal” equipment including body armor, night vision goggles, and medical and engineering equipment. Washington’s cautious approach has been attributed to the belief that direct provision of weapons would provoke intensified aggression by Russia.
That tepidness appears to be reversing. Separatists recently captured the Donetsk airport and are attempting to seize the rail hub of Debaltseve, and the Kremlin remains stubborn in its refusal to halt shipments of weaponry and personnel into Ukraine. The Cold War concept of strategic deterrence is gaining relevance in Washington policy circles.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who visited Kiev on Thursday, is reportedly open to discussions about providing the government with defensive weapons. The same is said of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin E. Dempsey of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been an opponent of such measures, but according to sources in the White House is willing to reconsider. Rice enjoys the closest personal relationship with the President of anyone on the foreign policy team.
Adding fodder to the debate has been a collaborative report published this past week by the Atlantic Council, Brookings Institute, and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The report is titled “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do” and written by eight national security scholars. The authors include former US Representative to NATO Ivo Daalder, former US Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis.
The authors implore the US and NATO to “engage more actively and urgently.” According to the report, that means arming Ukraine’s army sufficiently to “create a situation in which the Kremlin considers the option of further military action in or against Ukraine too costly to pursue.”
The Kremlin is determined to minimize casualties even while conducting operations in Ukraine. That is because the Putin regime lacks the domestic legal authorization to use Russian troops in combat operations there. Putin has denied ordering soldiers to fight in Ukraine, although NATO estimates that roughly 1,000 Russian military and intelligence personnel are there in support of separatist forces. The threat of increased casualties could push the Kremlin to withdraw from Ukraine.
More specifically, the report recommends supplying government forces with lethal weapons to counter Russian tanks and airpower. Such weapons include light anti-armor missiles and surface-to-air missiles. While the regular army has an advantage in manpower, it suffers from a relative dearth of heavy equipment.
If the Obama administration and its NATO allies decide that the time has come to arm the Ukrainian government, the legal backing is there. In November 2014 the US Congress passed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, a bill authorizing the government to supply up to $350 million in non-lethal and lethal military aid over three years. The wording of the bill makes explicit mention of “anti-tank and anti-armor weapons” and “crew weapons and ammunition.”