Military assistance to Ukraine should be part of broader strategy

Oxana Shevel, Tufts University, February 2015

| U.S. Foreign Policy | Ukraine |

This post originally appeared on PONARS Eurasia

Washington should seriously contemplate military assistance as part of a broader strategy for ending the conflict in Ukraine. It should not treat the option in a black-white/yes-no manner; it should take some but not all of the advice in the report. The main argument against military assistance to Ukraine is that it is more likely to encourage than discourage Russia from escalating the conflict, which would increase death and destruction, especially among civilians. These concerns are valid, but they could be mitigated by providing only the kind of equipment that would bolster Ukraine’s defenses and enable it to halt the further military advances of the Russia-backed separatists.

Since the September 2014 Minsk Agreement, with generous supplies of arms, advisers, and manpower from Russia, the separatists have gradually captured about 200 square miles of territory beyond the separation line agreed to in Minsk. In recent weeks, they have abandoned the agreement altogether, escalating the situation to an all-out offensive. Further, they have openly declared their intention to capture at least all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The separatist offensive has been slow and bloody. It is clear that the Ukrainian army, weak as it may be, is going to fight tooth and nail for every town it holds. If the separatist offensive continues, the humanitarian tragedies in towns like Vuhlehirsk and Debaltseve will be replayed across the region. A way to stop this misery from spreading is to secure a “hold” at the current line of contact. Limited Western military assistance may help the Ukrainian army do just that.

Non-lethal items such as communication equipment, reconnaissance drones, armored transport vehicles, and medical equipment may substantially bolster Ukrainian defense capabilities and help them hold the line. The West can stop short of supplying lethal items.

Escalation has costs for Russia. Russia has been eager to maintain its narrative of not being a party to the conflict. Escalation would have to involve the shipment of Russian troops and weapons that may be impossible to conceal from domestic and western audiences. Without the veneer of plausible deniability, Russia will be looking at stiffer sanctions and removal from the SWIFT system, which could deal a deathblow to the Russian economy.

Ultimately, the decision on military assistance to Ukraine should be taken as part of a broader Western strategy. This requires being honest about which Russian concerns the West is willing to address and which red lines it will not allow to be crossed.

If the West’s decision on limited military aid to Ukraine came with a peace plan to Russia and Ukraine over the Donbas – possibly a plan that is more advantageous to the separatist areas than the Minsk agreement – it may avoid escalation, and, at a minimum, prevent further civilian deaths.

This post originally appeared on PONARS Eurasia

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