Stephen Blank is Senior Fellow American Foreign Policy council
As of late March 2015 and despite multiple calls and pressures for aiding Ukraine the Obama Administration still refuses to send Ukraine lethal weapons for its defense against Russia’s continuing aggression. Indeed, only on March 20 did it finally agree to send trainers for Ukraine’s National Guard, not its army. Administration officials have openly stated the reasons for this policy but here we offer a deeper analysis of what lies beneath those statements.
Depending on which official is speaking we find the following arguments. Since Ukraine is not a member of NATO neither America nor NATO is obligated to defend it or send it arms. Neither does the 1994 Budapest Agreement represent a guarantee. Instead it offers assurances that may or may not be fulfilled. Others have argued against financial assistance because allegedly the money will be stolen due to pervasive corruption although that argument has recently faded away. But its military corollary is that either Ukrainian troops and the military command are riddled with Russian spies or they will not know how to use the assistance. Although Russian penetration is certainly well-documented; the Afghan Mujahadeen, who were rather backward technologically compared to Ukrainians, learned how to use the Stinger anti-aircraft missile sufficiently well to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan. Therefore that argument conceals deeper reasons for withholding aid.
There are fundamentally three reasons beyond those arguments for Washington’s timorous response to this aggression. First, US policy emphasizes allied unity above all. It therefore moves at the speed of the slowest ship in the convoy. Our European allies are visibly and predictably terrified of any escalation because mentally and materially no European government is ready to fully acknowledge the scale of the Russian threat and the sacrifices that must be made to resist it. Indeed, many European countries reduced defense spending last year despite this war. Moreover, virtually every European government and therefore Washington also believes that not only are they not obligated to defend Ukraine but also that sending it arms will only worsen the situation. Allegedly Russia enjoys what specialists call escalation dominance. Second, for Russia and Putin Ukraine is a vital issue and for them and Washington it is not such an issue. Indeed, Washington is clearly more exercised about the threat of ISIL and of Iran. There are also those in the White House and Washington who still hope to resume arms control negotiations for which Russia would be an indispensable partner.
Consequently because those threats are supposedly greater and Ukraine is less vital we now and in the future need Russian help. And since these elites reason circularly that here is nothing we can do to make things better other than sanctions we should not send arms as that will only provoke Putin to escalate in ways we cannot match or worse this might provoke a major, even nuclear war in Europe. Here they use the phrase an asymmetry of will, or in other words, supposedly Russia wants Ukraine more. More accurately, the y fear Putin more than he fears us. At the same time many officials dismiss Russia as a terminally declining power. Therefore Ukrainians must learn to live with it and just let it gradually decline just as Germany lived with the wall for 28 years because the alternatives are all worse.
Actually these arguments reflect the strategic illiteracy and incompetence of both the Obama Administration and Europe. Even more distressingly they also reveal the fear and lack of will to confront strategic realities that grips these governments. Undoubtedly Ukraine is a vital issue for Putin who has staked his and Russia’s future on it. But what these governments fail to realize is that Ukraine’s fate is no less vital to their and European security if not the overall international order. Putin does not only want to destroy any possibility of an independent sovereign Ukrainian state, he wants to destroy the order created in 1989-91 and his spokesmen and apologists increasingly openly say so. To the extent that we shirk from defending that order and Ukraine as we promised to do we actually facilitate a broader and greater European crisis.
Those political figures who argue thusly resemble Churchill’s analogy of European leaders who cravenly appeased Hitler and Mussolini hoping, in his words, that the crocodile would eat them last. They refuse to see Russia’s threat for what it is and cling to the already disproven hope that Putin can somehow be bought off or that we can find “an off-ramp” so that he can exit gracefully and we can return to something like business as usual. Such thinking not only reflects fear of Rusisa and of sacrificing anything to defend their own liberty and security, it also fails to grasp that while Putin may seek rest stops where he can refuel his car; he intends to go further. Even now the Minsk II agreement is collapsing with multiple Russian violations occurring every day.
Similarly the argument about escalation dominance is misplaced. Some officials actually invoke Robert McNamara’s action reaction syndrome without realizing that it was disproven thirty years ago. They also ignore signs that the Russian army may be reaching its culminating points. Heavy casualties, also reported by NATO, are forcing it to create units from the Russian Far East and Central Asia and it is opening the jails to Chechens and others with promises of freedom and payment if they will fight. Russia is also expending enormous amounts of artillery shells as it economy sags ever more and the defense burden becomes increasingly onerous. Meanwhile NATO, the strongest military alliance in the world, has done little or nothing. There is also little thought given to acting strategically, i.e. not just sending arms but combining arms, military training, large-scale economic assistance to force reforms, energy exports to undermine Russia’s economy and standing in Europe, and a large-scale information campaign to break Russia’s dominance here. These leaders refuse or cannot grasp that it is essential and within our capacity to respond strategically to Russia to take the initiative away from Moscow and make Putin worry about our escalation rather than worry about his. Given NATO’s resources, if it had the will it could, under American leadership, wrest the strategic initiative away from Putin. But instead Washington and European capitals are immobilized by their own fear, complacency and unwillingness to take Russia and its threats seriously.
The Russian proverb notes that fear has big eyes but that is only true when the intended victim also suffers form myopia and faint heartedness. Already Moscow is preparing a new offensive to seize more Ukrainian lands and all we have is empty rhetoric and mounting signs of EU disunity and lack of leadership. We may call the response to date a policy but it would be more accurate to call it a craven, even shameful abdication of policy and strategy that is only storing up greater costs for the inevitable larger crisis that will sooner rather than later strike not just Ukraine but Europe if not also America.