Wednesday, February 4, 2015

second thoughts on military aid to Ukraine

There seems to be an emerging consensus among Washington foreign policy elites that the United States should provide lethal and offensive military aid to Ukraine, beyond the defensive equipment already announced. A blue ribbon group assembled by Brookings has issued a report urging such action in order to deter further offensives by Russia. Another former DOD official analyzes and supports the report.

On the other hand, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations points out that there are logical gaps in the Brookings group proposal:
The report makes a convincing case, based upon the authors’ discussions in the region and their net assessment, that these military capabilities are indeed needed by the Ukrainian armed forces and could change the battlefield calculus, assuming that separatist and Russian forces themselves remain relatively static.

But will the death of a few more separatists and destruction of Russian equipment achieve the political objective—changing the calculus of Putin’s thinking in order to compel him to endorse a genuine settlement. This is improbable, and there are two more troubling and foreseeable pathways that could unfold:  it demonstrates that Ukraine is actually not that important to the transatlantic alliance, and this limited capability is the maximum of what the United States and NATO will do (this seems most likely); or, it triggers Putin to double-down on his support for separatist forces and non-uniformed Russian security forces in Ukraine to firmly establish facts on the ground before those capabilities are fully integrated into Ukrainian security forces, which could take nine to twelve months (this escalation concern seems less likely).
Another doubter is longtime Russia expert Eugene Rumer, writing in the Financial Times:
What do we do if Russia continues to escalate the conflict? Or if the Kremlin launches a cyber attack against an American financial institution, destroying data about asset ownership? Does America then inch closer towards war?   

It is not a kindness to kindle unrealistic hopes. Of course Ukraine is a victim of aggression. But, short of a campaign like that fought by the US and its allies in the Balkans in the 1990s — which no one now advocates — no amount of US or Nato assistance can alter the fact that Russia has the upper hand. In August, and again in January, Mr Putin chose to escalate rather than allow the separatists to be defeated. Ukraine will need help rebuilding its army, and the US should provide it. But it will take years, and cannot be done in the middle of a war with a more powerful neighbour.
We spent the past year reexamining the start of World War I.  One lesson still valid today is to worry about the downstream consequences of small military steps. In Ukraine and elsewhere, the United States should not be promising more than can actually be delivered and accomplished.

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