Arming Ukraine: Practicalities and Implications
America’s recent decision to authorize the sale and delivery of Javelin anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine was shortsighted and dangerous to all parties involved. The provision of the Javelin weapons system, in particular, serves as little more than a symbolic gesture. In the end, the authorization will likely prove a maneuver in optics, not strategy. Furthermore, recent developments suggest the Ukrainian government, in an effort to secure the deal, may have interfered with the ongoing special counsel investigation in the United States.
The following delineates the reasoning behind this conclusion, puts forward some of the stronger arguments in favor of the authorization, and describes why they are misguided. Amid the fraught U.S.-Russia relations of late, it is vital for American policymakers to consider each geopolitical decision with the utmost care, ensuring the best interests of the United States and her allies are always kept in mind. An appropriate policy would include forgoing any further sale of lethal weaponry, replacing it instead with increased funds and non-lethal materiel such as counter-electronic warfare (EW) technology and the deployment of additional troops on a strictly train-and-advise basis.
The conflict in Eastern Ukraine has claimed over 10,000 lives and forced over a million more to flee their homes. Taking these figures into consideration, it is evident that decisive action is necessary; thus far, however, the United States has taken the wrong approach. Arming Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles runs the risk of reigniting what has become a relatively static engagement between the Ukrainian Army and Russian-backed separatists. Skirmishes occur on a daily basis, and casualties continue to accrue, but a sudden injection of Western munitions into the hands of the Ukrainian Army is likely to prompt a disproportionate response from the side of the Russians, a reaction not without historical precedence. Assuming the Russians respond not in kind, but with asymmetric force, where does that leave the United States? Is the United States to perpetually provide bigger and better arms as the process persists in some sort of vicious iteration of Robert Jervis’s spiral model? For now, Russia has far more at stake in this conflict. With his population’s support and at least six more years at the helm, Vladimir Putin can and will broaden his country’s efforts in the region if need be. Even if the United States were committed to meet every response with more firepower, the Russians have the overwhelming advantage of geography. Russia’s shared border with Ukraine, one that is reportedly near-impossible to effectively monitor, enables expedited resupplies. Putin’s relative autonomy in terms of foreign policy decisions also adds to the potential for a rapid response.
Furthermore, it is prudent to consider how Ukrainians may interpret the signaling of receiving lethalarms from America. Inspired by the renewed and augmented support of the Americans, this move could embolden Ukrainians to begin launching assaults, thus producing an avoidable escalation scenario. Many like to frame the conversation as providing so-called defensive weapons rather than offensive, but in reality, there is no logical distinction between the two. The Ukrainians using these weapons to go on an offensive, making the U.S. an indirect accomplice in violating the Minsk Agreement, remains a real possibility and a real concern of those monitoring the situation closely.
From a purely practical standpoint, providing Ukraine with Javelins makes little sense. While the provision of such weapons would certainly generate substantial repercussions due to the symbolism of the action, their usefulness on the battlefield would be virtually imperceptible. In fact, former commander of U.S. Army Europe remarked in 2015 that the Ukrainian Army having Javelin missiles “would not change the situation strategically in a positive way.” Ukraine has no need for Javelin missiles, as it already produces its own comparable varieties of anti-tank weaponry. The Ukrainian Army is well-equipped for situations that require anti-tank capabilities, thus it is redundant to provide them with more. Furthermore, the conflict has largely steered away from tank warfare, further highlighting the superfluity of Javelin sales. The provision of other lethal arms in general is similarly excessive.
Since the outbreak of the conflict, the Ukrainian Army has improved its capabilities in almost every aspect of warfare by orders of magnitude. Ukraine’s current air, land, and sea means are unrecognizable in comparison to those of 2014. If anything, the United States should be increasing support to help Ukraine counter the innovative electronic warfare the Russian-backed separatists are waging in the east. An electronic warfare package would be immensely more advantageous to the effort in Ukraine. The package could include products such as the THOR III, CREW jammer, or MODI II systems, as well as a contingent of U.S. electronic warfare specialists to train Ukrainian soldiers using a strategy akin to the one released by the Pentagon in 2017. This recent Department of Defense approach lays emphasis on the integration of burgeoning electronic warfare capabilities throughout the gamut of military operations, the use of cost-effective technology in lieu of conventional arms, and the coordination of preparedness training for the rigors of conflict in the electromagnetic spectrum.
These systems, among others, could make a genuine difference in an electronic warfare space currently dominated by the Russians. As an added benefit, Ukrainian troops could later be debriefed by their American counterparts on how the technology fared in real-world application against the current leader in electronic warfare tactics, providing valuable insight to be used in future strategic planning. To further assist, the United States could take the advice of a February 2018 Carnegie report, which suggests the problem the Ukrainian Army faces now is not one of hardware, but of structure, and a key component of successful reform is the expansion of Western training efforts.
It is also imperative to acknowledge the likelihood of American-made weapons systems winding up in the hands other than those for whom they were intended. Time and again, U.S.-supplied weapons are either stolen from the anticipated beneficiary or never make it there in the first place. In just the last decade, this happened in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Mexico.
In Ukraine, the worry would be that the Javelins provided by America could make their way into the arms of either some sort of extremist Ukrainian militia such as the Azov Battalion or the very same Russian-backed separatists the weapons were meant to combat. The Ukrainian Army has lost control of countless weapons that have then found their way onto the streets and online marketplaces. In one instance, Ukrainian Army vehicles were taken by separatists in broad daylight and subsequently paraded about. More importantly, non-lethal U.S. military equipment, such as mortar-tracking radar technology given to Ukraine in 2015, was stolen by the separatists not long after delivery. Assuming such a risk with lethal weaponry is needless and should, under present circumstances, be avoided.
The advocates of arming Ukraine cite a number of well-intentioned, yet nebulous and, in some cases, erroneous motives for their position. The primary argument is that the United States must support the independence of a democratic, potential future NATO member. The problem with this particular belief is that the United States is and has been supporting the independence of Ukraine for years. Since the outset of the conflict, the United States has provided over $1.3 billion in monetary assistance, training, and non-lethal materiel such as radar, surveillance, and vehicles. As argued above, there is no practical need for the provision of lethal arms, so the support for Ukrainian independence is, in effect, being realized. Another argument for arming Ukraine is that doing so strengthens NATO; however, one can argue persuasively that Ukraine is doing just fine without American anti-tank missiles.
In the same vein as the strengthening NATO argument, champions for the arming of Ukraine insist that lethal arms from America will enhance European security. European allies of the United States tend to have a different opinion. Representatives of countries located within Europe, such as the former president of France, Francois Hollande; German Chancellor, Angela Merkel; and U.K. national security official, Mark Sedwell, have publicly stated their qualms with a U.S.-provided lethal arms package, echoing the concerns outlined above. Also coming from within Europe, the European Council on Foreign Relations has published objections to the idea. In a broader sense, current French president Emmanuel Macron has recently called for Europe to achieve greater defense autonomy and rely less on the United States. In his remarks, he suggested a move towards security cooperation with the Russian Federation if the situation in Donbas deescalates.
ARMING UKRAINE IS SYMBOLICALLY MORAL, BUT CHANCES AN INCREASE IN HOSTILITIES THAT COULD DEVOLVE INTO A TIT-FOR-TAT PROXY WAR, OR WORSE.
There is no rational basis for providing Ukraine with Javelin missile systems, or any other lethalweaponry. Such a move has no positive effect for the Ukrainians on the battlefield. Instead, the United States is undertaking several wholly preventable risks with the prospect of realizing zero strategic ends. The Ukrainian armed forces are capable of sustaining their mission domestically. Arming Ukraine is symbolically moral, but chances an increase in hostilities that could devolve into a tit-for-tat proxy war, or worse.
An entirely new U.S. policy towards Ukraine is unnecessary. Rather, the existing policy of supporting Ukraine is in need of amending, which can be achieved by a collaborative approach on the part of Congress and the executive branch. A three-pronged strategy is the best means of modifying the current U.S. strategy.
First and foremost, the U.S. must transition from the provision of lethal means, to non-lethal aid paired with an advisory presence focused on countering Russian electronic warfare capabilities. Next, in lieu of any further weapons deals, Congress should author and pass a bill that allocates increased funds to be used in providing Ukraine with non-lethal materiel, surveillance drones, and, most importantly, counter-electronic warfare technology. Finally, Congress should petition the president to authorize not only the aforementioned equipment-provision bill, but also the deployment of additional troops, with a non-combat mandate, to assist the Ukrainian military with training and structural reforms.
Brendan Chrzanowski is a Navy veteran and a student in the NYU Global Affairs graduate program.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.
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