Why the US Should Rethink Military Support for Ukraine

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University of Nottingham (Ningbo Campus) Assistant Professor Nicholas Ross Smith argues that while arming Ukraine may be the right thing to do, it naively underestimates the geopolitical reality of Eastern Europe and could result in a far worse outcome for both Ukraine and Europe.

Donald Trump’s recent decision to approve the sale of more lethal arms to Ukraine has been widely heralded as a positive step by those commentators and politicians that have been aghast at Russia’s belligerent Ukraine strategy over the past three years.

Details of what the agreement entails are sketchy at this stage. However, sources have stated that the agreement will include access to the “javelin” anti-tank missile. The javelin is a weapon that Ukraine’s military officials have long coveted because it will provide some firepower to counteract Russian tanks and armored personnel vehicles which have, up until this point of the conflict, given Russia a enormous advantage.

Given that the rebels in east Ukraine have clearly been aided by Russia’s military might, an argument could be made that the United States providing help to the Ukrainian government is the ethical thing to do. However, the decision to provide Ukraine access to weapons such as the javelin is potentially calamitous, particularly for Ukraine.

The problem with assisting Ukraine militarily is that it naively underestimates that current reality of international relations and especially the regional setting in Eastern Europe: an increasingly anarchic environment where great power competition is becoming relevant once again.

Although the mess Ukraine finds itself in is undeniably, first and foremost, a product of Russian belligerence, the West is not without blame either. Most importantly, the failure of the United States and other Western powers from the beginning to understand Russia’s fears of Western encroachment (EU & NATO enlargement to be precise) into its long-held ‘sphere of privileged interest’  has spawned numerous suboptimal policies.

The EU’s zero-sum offer of closer political and economic integration with Ukraine and NATO’s unwillingness to explicitly rule out Ukrainian accession are two clear suboptimal policy examples. Both the US and the EU clearly miscalculated Russia’s likely response to Ukraine’s encouraged Western pivot, and, more worryingly, neither of these actors has done much to take on board Moscow’s concerns.

Russia’s support of the rebels has so far been hard to quantify, exemplifying their non-linear war tactics which prioritize deniability. Regardless, it is a fair assumption that if the United States starts providing greater military support to Ukraine, the Kremlin will, in turn, increase its support of the rebels, and perhaps up the ante further.

Is the United States, especially one led by the less than credible Donald Trump, really prepared to ‘play chicken’ with Russia over Ukraine?

The Ukraine crisis to date vividly illustrates an important point: Russia has been prepared to pay a very high cost (international ostracization and ongoing economic sanctions to be exact) to pursue its foreign policy goals in Ukraine.

For the United States and the EU, Ukraine does not represent anywhere near the same level of strategic importance as it does for Moscow. Russia is therefore far more likely to escalate its commitment than the West is, especially regarding military action.

Consequently, arming Ukraine, even with only defensive weapons, would represent another case of the West pursuing ‘good intentions’ without considering the likely negative consequences (the rap sheet for this is getting rather long). Furthermore, given that the United States is nestled safely away from the geopolitical pressures underpinning the Ukraine crisis, it costs relatively little for the US to arm Ukraine, but at the same time, it might cost Ukraine and the rest of Europe greatly.

Understandably, not standing up to Russia over Ukraine has been a cause of some shame in the United States, especially amongst those that still believe in her liberal international role. However, the further chaos that could be unleashed through ramping up military aid to Ukraine is so grave that the potential costs of doing so clearly outweigh the potential benefits.

There is no ‘silver bullet’ solution for solving the Ukraine crisis, but there are better options than increasing military support to Ukraine. A more optimal strategy, for the medium-to-long term, would be recognizing Russia’s status as a great power in Eastern Europe through agreeing on a security architecture which balances power between the West and Russia and pacifies competition in the corridor of countries that lies between (where Ukraine resides). Russia has long craved to be treated as an equal in Europe. Moscow’s perceived subordination by the EU and NATO in matters of European security has been a source of much fear and anxiety, and, thus, motivating its current strategic posture.

The above suggested accommodation of Russian interests in Eastern Europe is widely viewed as a policy akin to appeasement. Indeed, an often cited analogy to warn against a concession like this is that of Great Britain’s appeasement of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Using historical analogies to drive policy recommendations is generally a flawed exercise, and in this case, comparing Putin and Russia to Hitler and Nazi Germany is completely hyperbolic and eschews the clear differences that exist between the two (both countries and persons).

Rather than appeasement, recognizing the power dynamics of Eastern Europe should be viewed as an acknowledgement of the geopolitical reality there. Doing this would help pacify some of the underlying geopolitical tensions born from the unbalanced nature of Eastern Europe power – namely Russia’s insecurity at perceived Western hegemony – and help refocus the West-Russia relationship, especially in the context of Eastern Europe and Ukraine, towards the clear positive sum areas that exist in trade and energy relations.

However, for an outcome like this to happen, the United States and the EU must overcome the knee-jerk idealism which is propelling calls to increase support to Kiev and instead think pragmatically about the bigger picture: how to reduce tensions between Russia and the West.

Image courtesy of  Wikicommons. 

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About Nicholas Ross Smith

Nicholas Ross Smith is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo Campus in China. He is the author of the book EU-Russian Relations and the Ukraine Crisis (2016, with Edward Elgar Publishing) and has recently published articles on the strained West-Russia relationship with Global Policy, International Politics, and Orbis.

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