A growing debate within the Obama administration on whether to provide direct military support for Ukraine’s beleaguered military against Russian-backed rebels has experts divided on whether such a move would significantly alter Moscow’s strategic calculus or prove effective in aiding the West’s goal of a political solution in Ukraine.
America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, arrived in Kiev on Thursday. He will be joined in the Ukrainian capital by French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who announced a fresh push for peace as Kerry touched down.
Those talks take on a new dynamic after Wednesday’s testimony by Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, who made his position on providing arms to Ukraine very clear.
“I very much incline in that direction because I think we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves,” Carter said during his confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate. His testimony comes amid reports last week suggesting a growing debate in the Obama administration whether to provide arms.
Several former administration officials and foreign policy luminaries of the Democratic establishment have already made an explicit call to arms (PDF), in a report released by the Brookings Institution. “Only if the Kremlin knows that the risks and costs of further military action are high will it seek to find an acceptable political solution,” said the report, whose authors included former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder and former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy.
In his testimony, Carter called Russia’s moves in Ukraine a “clear violation” of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, an agreement signed by Russia and the U.S. that, among other things, pledged both sides to respecting Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.
But Eugene Rumer, a former intelligence official in the Obama administration and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that such a policy risks overpromising to Ukraine while setting the stage for a conflagration with Russia that could be very difficult to control.
“It is highly unlikely to knock Mr. Putin off his destructive course. And it would bring the U.S. a step closer to direct military confrontation with Russia,” he wrote in an editorial in The Financial Times. “In August, and again in January, Mr. Putin chose to escalate rather than allow the separatists to be defeated.”
Talks among Ukraine, Russia and rebels in Minsk, Belarus, over the terms of a September cease-fire agreement have repeatedly broken down, and fighting in Ukraine’s east has continued despite the truce — with U.S. and Western officials repeatedly accusing Russian military forces of participating in the fighting.
Since April, at least 5,000 people have been killed in the fighting — with the United Nations saying last month that toll could be “considerably higher” — while Russia continues to occupy Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine last year.
For now, the Obama administration’s policy to support Ukraine has consisted of a combination of supporting Kiev with nonlethal military equipment, economic aid and, with its European partners, economic sanctions against Russia.
“We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies,” Obama said in his State of the Union address last month.
In the face of both sanctions and a precipitous drop in global oil prices in the last six months, Russia’s economy has tanked. But Putin’s political power has remained seemingly unchallenged domestically, and his calculus in Ukraine appears to be quite insulated from the economic misfortunes that have befallen Russia.
“As far as he [Putin] is concerned, the U.S., the EU and NATO are already at war with Russia because they’ve imposed sanctions,” said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, on “The Diane Rehm Show.” “When we make a decision like this [to arm Ukraine with weapons], we have to think about all of the different things that Putin might do, and we cannot assume that he will be pushed back or deterred based on what we think will be the reaction of the Russian population.”
In addition to questions about how Putin would respond to a U.S. policy to provide arms to Ukraine, it is unclear if a unified Western position on Russia, upon which the strength of the current sanctions regime have been anchored, could withstand such a policy change.
Merkel told reporters on Monday during a trip to Budapest, Hungary, that Berlin “will not support Ukraine with weapons. I am convinced this conflict cannot be solved by military means.” Given her country’s strong historic and economic ties to Moscow, Merkel’s voice is considered influential.
France on Wednesday also said that for now it opposed delivering any weapons to Ukraine. "We have no intention of delivering weapons at this stage to Ukraine," said Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. "We will continue with sanctions, but at the same time, we have to avoid by all means this ongoing situation that is getting worse and could lead to even worse tensions."
Daalder said that Putin’s actions in Ukraine are partly a result of insufficient Western deterrents.
Speaking to NPR on Tuesday, Daalder said, “I think the history of this conflict up to this point is that Russia has escalated at each and every turn, even without us trying to do anything to prevent that. They are the ones who annexed Crimea, supported separatist forces last summer, then actually invaded with large numbers of regular troops.”
But in Carter’s testimony on Wednesday, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, raised the possibility that Putin’s logic would not change even with a new U.S. arms commitment. “If we could arm the Ukrainians and give them some strategic advantage, the problem is we can’t rely on the Russians not responding, and then we’re in an escalation situation.”
“You’ve raised an excellent question,” Carter said in response, acknowledging that his inclined policy preference and a potential policy shift for the Obama administration on Ukraine would not be without significant risk. “You always have to ask yourself not the next step but “‘What’s the step after that?’”