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Expert analysis on U.S., Russia and arming Ukraine

- February 12, 2015

Looking for a source for expert analysis on U.S.-Russian relations and the Ukraine conflict? Check out the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Rebuilding U.S.-Russia Relations Web site, which features short, on-point commentary by a variety of academics and policy experts. (In interest of full disclosure: I have written for Carnegie as part of this series in past).
Up currently, expert academic reaction to the question of whether the United States should be supplying arms to Ukraine. Here are few excerpts from recent posts:

Want to arm Kiev? Better have a Plan B
Rajan Menon, City College of New York, February 2015

To say that the truce in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed breakaway “republics” are battling the pro-Western Kiev government, isn’t holding is like saying the Titanic sprung a leak. There’s a full-blown war afoot. And whatever Moscow may claim, Russia is deeply involved. So should the West arm the embattled Ukrainians?  Yes, according to a new report released by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that calls for $1 billion in arms to Ukraine for 2015, and the same in 2016 and 2017. These Beltway power brokers assume that Putin will recalculate and wind down the war once he sees that the United States is serious about backing Ukraine. But the arrival of American arms and advisors in Ukraine won’t weaken Putin politically. Arming Ukraine…probably would prompt Putin to scale up the war. Then there’s the Plan B problem. There’s a basic axiom in war: Don’t take a big step (or even a small one) without having thought hard, and planned for, what you will do if it doesn’t have the intended effect.

Endangering USA won’t stop Putin
Kimberly Marten, Barnard College, Columbia University, February 2015

Supporting the democratically elected Ukrainian government with funding and advice is good policy. But supplying Kiev with lethal weaponry would endanger U.S. national security interests, while having little chance of stopping Vladimir Putin.  Ukraine lacks a reliable professional military organization, and Washington could not control how or where American weapons would be used on the ground. The plan to send weapons to Ukraine assumes that if Putin faces a strengthened foe, he will be forced to negotiate. But if suffocating sanctions have not accomplished that, why assume weapons will? Putin controls the Russian media, and his KGB connections allow him to credibly threaten any opponent with public humiliation or arrest. He is in no danger of being deposed. Rather than prompting him to negotiate, sending U.S. and NATO weapons to Ukraine would give him an excuse to declare that Russian forces must go into Ukraine to defend Russia from American attack. It is not in America’s interests to risk direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia, in non-NATO territory that Russia claims as its sphere of interest.

Military assistance to Ukraine should be part of broader strategy
Oxana Shevel, Tufts University, February 2015

Washington should seriously contemplate military assistance as part of a broader strategy for ending the conflict in Ukraine. The main argument against military assistance to Ukraine is that it is more likely to encourage than discourage Russia from escalating the conflict. This concern is valid, but 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. It is clear that the Ukrainian army, weak as it may be, is going to fight tooth and nail for every town it holds. A way to stop this misery from spreading is to secure a “hold” at the current line of contact. Escalation has costs for Russia. 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.

Arms likely to spark further escalation
Cory Welt, George Washington University, February 2015

A decision to supply military assistance to Ukraine – and what kind – will ultimately be a political one. Whatever the decision, it should not be defended on the basis that the assistance will enable Ukraine to hold its current line of defense and persuade Russia to refrain from further escalation. We simply do not know how Russia will respond, although I suspect an initial escalation is more likely than not. Before providing even non-lethal military equipment, therefore, the U.S. ought to have a plan in place for how it will respond to another round of escalation –a plan that does not involve a constant ratcheting up of military assistance. The U.S. should also be prepared for the contingency by which Ukraine remains outgunned despite an influx of military assistance and is forced to negotiate a peace on less favorable terms than those that hold now. Without such planning, it may be preferable to first strive to maintain the current line of defense through other means than military assistance.

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Note: Updated Oct. 3, 2023.