The Obama administration is apparently reconsidering its refusal to provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine, although reading between the lines I suspect Obama is reprising his star turn as Hamlet. The security establishment seems solidly behind the idea, but Obama frets about getting into a proxy war with Russia.
Merkel came out steadfastly against the idea:
“Germany will not support Ukraine with guns and weapons,” said Merkel, speaking in Budapest. “We are putting all our bets on sanctions and doing our best to find a diplomatic solution.”
Telegram from Mr. Trotsky to Barack and Angela: you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.* Nattering on about diplomacy is pathetic given where things stand now, with the collapse of the Minsk accords and the dramatic escalation of conflict all along the contact line, but especially in the Debaltseve pocket. Merkel is engaged in wishful, not to say magical, thinking. Diplomacy and force are complements, and Putin will be uninterested in talk, except as a diversionary or delaying tactic, as long as the military option is viable.
One of the weapons the US is supposedly considering supplying to Ukraine is the Javelin anti-tank guided missile (ATGM). This could be a decisive weapon, and some wicked turnaround for Putin. Hezbollah inflicted great losses on Israel using Russian-made Kornet ATGMs in 2006. If supplied in quantity, Javelins could neutralize Russia’s substantial advantage in armor, and dramatically raise the cost to the Russians and their proxies in blood, treasure, and equipment in any attempt to expand military operations in Ukraine.
How would this affect Putin? We don’t know what he is willing to pay for various outcomes in Ukraine, but making Ukrainian defenses substantially more effective could make the price for an outright conquest of part or all of Ukraine greater than Putin is willing to pay.
Putin has been able to get by so far by having his proxies bear the brunt of the casualties, and by suppressing news about Russian casualties. But even he would be unable to keep a lid on a large spike in losses. What’s more, his manpower and material resources are in fact quite constrained. Substantial losses could render his forces largely combat ineffective and incapable of a decisive victory.
The main risk is that it may be too late. The arms won’t magically appear in Ukraine overnight, and it would take some time to train the Ukrainians in their use after they arrive. If arms start to flow, Putin may conclude that he has a time window in which to advance, and therefore decide to move now, whereas he might be inclined to wait and rely on other means to dominate Ukraine if he believed that he could invade later if need be. Ironically, the more effective the arms we provide (or more accurately, the more effective Putin and his generals believe those weapons will be) the greater the incentive he has to move before those weapons arrive. Thus, the interval between the decision to arm and the time that the weapons are in Ukrainian hands will be quite fraught, and the US would need to be prepared to deter Putin in other ways during that interval.
There are widespread concerns that Putin would react to the arming of Ukraine by escalating elsewhere, such as the Baltics. He is clearly trying to signal his truculence, as with a provocative flight of nuclear armed Bear bombers through the English Channel. Thus, the issue becomes whether he can be deterred from challenging Nato directly in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, or Poland for that matter. If he can’t be, Ukraine is the least of our problems. Or put differently, we need to revitalize our deterrent regardless of what we do in Ukraine, because Nato countries would be at risk.
If Putin’s madman strategy-real or feigned-is potentially effective in intimidating the West into acquiescing to his subjugation of Ukraine, magical thinking and Hamlet-like fretting are certainly effective at egging him on. People like him sense weakness as a predatory beast can. Arguably the strongest argument for arming Ukraine in the face of Putin’s threats is that it could get him to reassess the strength of American resolve. Obama’s record of temporizing-on Syria, on Isis, on Ukraine-has given Putin considerable reason to believe that when pushed, Obama will back down. It will take something rather dramatic, such as arming Ukraine in a big way, to convince Putin otherwise: even that is merely necessary, rather than sufficient. But if it’s done, it must be done lavishly, and not in a token fashion. But given how stingily we are with arms to the Syrian opposition and even the Kurds (who are actually accomplishing something against Isis), I find it hard to believe that Obama will do that.
The conundrum is that Putin will view American (and European) passivity as an invitation to keep pressing forward. Those who oppose doing something more robust, such as arming the Ukrainians, argue that this action will goad him forward as well: they are deluding themselves if they think he can be appeased. So it seems that regardless of what course is taken, Putin will keep trying.
At least Bloomberg is somewhat consistent. It says that we’re not going to seriously oppose Putin anyways, why give the Ukrainians any false hopes by giving them weapons? Just tell them to get used to living under Russian domination again and don’t encourage them to wage a futile war on their own.
But if you don’t want to acquiesce to Putin dominating the entire Warsaw Pact space, you have to make a stand somewhere. If the Ukrainians are willing to make that stand, give them the means to do it.
* This phrase is widely attributed to Trotsky, but the closest anyone can find written by him is “you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.”