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Should the US help arm Ukraine?

Congress is pushing to send weapons to the Ukrainian army as violence in the country’s east escalates to new levels

After a quiet spell, eastern Ukraine is at war once again. Western leaders are looking for a solution, including arming the Ukrainian military.

While the West weighs its options, a high-stakes diplomatic mission is taking place in Kiev. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday on his trip there that "there must be an immediate commitment now to a real cease-fire, which is not just a piece of paper and words, but is followed by specific actions."

He also announced on his trip that the U.S. would provide more than $16 million in humanitarian aid for Ukraine, while lawmakers at home from both sides of the aisle called on President Barack Obama to send weapons to the Ukrainian army.

"This is a fight between a struggling democracy and an autocratic dictatorship, and we should take sides," said Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.

Would arming the Ukrainian military raise tensions between the West and Russia to a level not seen since the height of the Cold War? 

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Inside Story: What are the risks when arming one side of a proxy war?

Ivo Daalder: I don’t regard this as a proxy war. I see this is where Russia has proxy but we don’t. We support the independence of the country being attacked. 

The criticism that it won’t work — that if you provide arms to Ukraine, the Russians will provide more equipment to separatists or, indeed, to provide more troops to be involved in the fighting — this is a risk that exists with or without the weapons.

Also, what alternatives do the critics propose to arm the conflict? Do we want to live in [a world] where big countries can bully neighbors by invading them by harming their proxies and taking control of territory form neighboring countries? That’s what’s at stake here.

Does the U.S. providing arms to Ukraine take the idea of talks for negotiations with Russia off the table?

To the contrary. It raises the cost of war for Russians. It would make it less likely for separatists to achieve their objectives militarily and change context for negotiations.

We’re not calling for military solution to the conflict. We’re calling for a change in the balance for morality power so we can get to a military solution. Right now, Ukraine would like to negotiate, but neither Russia nor separatists want to do so. Only when the cost of continuing military action rises will they be willing to come to the negotiating table. We see our negotiation as part and parcel of the negotiation process.

Could arming help or harm the overall situation in Ukraine?

Federiga Bindi: It’s absolutely totally nuts to arm Ukraine. 

Even looking at some of the most recent cases, the weapons are either turned back on us — think back to Iraq and Afghanistan — or translates to boots on the ground. That worries me more. I think this is very dangerous.

Ukraine is a divided country, like many, and was artificially created after the Cold War. In some cases, it took a lot of effort for certain parts of the country to feel a part of the greater country. It's not that this is a country that has existed for thousands of years and has been living happily forever. It has had problems to begin with.

The only foreseeable outcome is that Russia will get upset, and we don’t know what the consequences of that would be. 

But doesn't it risk emboldening Russia more to not have a clear line of defense on the Ukrainian front?

It’s really lose-lose any way you put it. The people who are claiming that we should arm Ukraine are saying if you don’t do it, Russia will be bolder and bolder. Yes, there is a chance that may happen, but what we know for sure is that if you arm Ukraine, the chance of Russia becoming bolder is a 100 percent possibility.

Russia wants its historical role to be reorganized. So we have to think of a solution which will enable both of them to appear winners with their own constituencies.

John Herbst

John Herbst is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. He served for 31 years as a foreign service officer in the U.S. Department of State, retiring at the rank of career minister. He was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006.

Why arm Ukraine?

John Herbst: There are many reasons. First, what we are advocating is substantial but defensive arms, including defensive lethal arms. The purpose is to stop further Kremlin aggression. We believe it may deter [Russian President Vladimir] Putin from acting further.

Further casualties will affect Russian public opinion of the war. The Russian public still believes they are not sending conventional troops in. We know a Russian army division went in in September. There are hundreds of soldiers there now. Ukraine believes it is around 9,000 troops.

Point two, the Ukrainians are fighting without this. They are clearly the victim. Why in the world are we not helping the victim? They are being crushed by their neighbor.

Then there is the whole Budapest Memorandum to assure Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. That was the agreement we struck so Ukraine would abandon their nuclear weapons.

Fourth, Mr. Putin has announced his intention to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers wherever they are. Otherwise, he says, there will be no rules. He has said Russia should have a sphere of influence. Those are all very dangerous things that threaten the peace, stability and security of not just Europe but Eurasia. From almost any perspective, it is foolish not to send arms to Ukraine and take other strong measures to make clear aggression is not profitable.

Are we ready to escalate again, though, if Russia is not deterred but responds in kind?

I would recommend that if that were to happen, we provide more arms. I would not recommend one soldier or a single adviser. But more weapons — why not? He has done this in Georgia and now in Ukraine. He has taken provocative steps toward the Baltics and shown malign intent to Kazakhstan. We will have problems beyond Ukraine if he has his way. Why would we not want to make his life hard if we can right now, so he may not be as aggressive later on?

This panel was assembled for the broadcast of “Inside Story.” 

For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.

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