Arming Ukraine: A Dose of Realism

File photo of Barack Obama and Petro Poroshenko facing one another, with Obama gesturing

Date: 17 Feb 2015
From: Kirk Bennett <>

By Kirk Bennett
Kirk Bennett is a former Foreign Service officer who served in both Moscow and Kyiv. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. government.

The latest upsurge in fighting in the Donbass, as well as hints that the Obama Administration might reconsider its policy against providing lethal arms to Ukrainian government forces, has touched off a vigorous debate among American foreign-policy experts and Russia-watchers. An article by Strobe Talbott and Steven Pifer, making the case for arming the Ukrainians, was the opening salvo. It has been met by withering return fire from a variety of respected experts generally identified with the realist school of foreign policy thought.

The realists have backed up their argument against arming Ukraine with a host of undeniable facts. Russia’s interests in Ukraine outweigh those of Europe, let alone the United States. Even armed by the West, Ukraine’s army could never hope to defeat Russia on the battlefield. An uptick in Russian casualties is not going to bring the Putin regime crashing down. The Russians would be unhappy if we armed Kyiv, and might retaliate by escalating the conflict further. The really important task in Ukraine right now is internal reform and reviving the economy, and we need to “freeze” the conflict in order to achieve those goals. Our approach in Ukraine must be to seek a negotiated settlement.

These facts, to my mind, are all unassailable as far as they go. But they don’t go far enough. Honeycombed with straw-man arguments and questionable assumptions, the realist case ultimately disappoints by its sheer lack of realism.

There are at least four problems with the bland assertion about the preponderance of Russian over Western interests in Ukraine.

1) It fails to distinguish between valid and invalid Russian interests, or between legitimate and illegitimate means of pursuing them. Moscow’s “interest” in saving ethnic Russians from genocide was bogus from the start; even a legitimate Russian interest in proposed changes to Ukraine’s language policy hardly justified invasion and conquest. This is a crucial point that the realists largely gloss over. While most of them – admirably – condemn Russian behavior in Ukraine, the blanket assertion that Russia’s interests are “greater” comes pretty close to excusing Moscow’s actions.

2) It appears to assume that Western interests in Ukraine are limited to such bilateral matters as trade, investment, and people-to-people contacts. However, the compelling Western interest with regard to the war in Ukraine is not bilateral at all, but lies in the preservation of the post-Cold War order in Europe, a matter of vital interest for the EU and NATO as well as their individual members. Salvaging Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity is crucial for the West not because our bilateral relations with Ukraine are so important, but because European security writ large is so important – and this is true regardless of whether or not Ukraine ever joins NATO or the EU.

3) It views the Ukraine war through a narrow East-West lens, sidestepping the inconvenient fact that Russian interests in Ukraine, even legitimate ones, are heavily outweighed by Ukrainian interests in Ukraine. The assumption seems to be that Ukrainian interests should be irrelevant, or at least subordinate to Russian interests, in Western policymaking with regard to Ukraine.

4) Logically, it is an argument not against Western arming of Ukraine, but against the West doing anything in Ukraine at all. Why should realists urge the West to focus on Ukraine’s stabilization and reform, since Russia’s interest in an unstable, unreformed Ukraine outweighs, a priori, any interest of the West’s? And if the preponderance of Russian interests essentially excuses the seizure of Crimea and the Donbass, why wouldn’t it equally justify the imposition of Russian rule over the whole of Ukraine?

There is evidently a finite number of small countries that can be thrown under the bus to accommodate Russian “interests,” somehow without ever jeopardizing European security. Indeed, if the “Russia’s interests are greater” argument is dispositive, then there must be a whole raft of states that qualify for the “Donbass treatment.” Perhaps the realists could give us the list now, so that we can see just how far into Central Europe it extends.

No question, the Russians would not be pleased if the West armed the Ukrainians, and it is factually true that the Kremlin COULD escalate the conflict as a result, but we can only conjecture how Moscow might react to various armament scenarios. What we can say for a fact is that Russia has been escalating the conflict anyway, and it is singularly illogical to posit that we can induce greater Russian restraint to the extent that we make Russian escalation easier by withholding key weapons from the Ukrainians. Moreover, warnings about Russia’s response to the arming of Ukraine seem to assume that Russian escalation would be both cheap and painless for the Kremlin. It would not. Opinion polls show that most Russians oppose direct military engagement in Ukraine, hence the Kremlin has been at pains to conceal the extent of Russia’s intervention. The flip side of Putin’s sky-high public-approval ratings is that fact that he has nowhere to go but down.

The Ukrainians are the most unfortunate of post-Soviet nations. Far more than anyone else, they have been chronically unable to either a) create institutions of good governance, or b) reconcile themselves to the venal, corrupt oligarchy they’ve got. After the crushing disappointment of the Orange Revolution, the 2013-14 Euromaidan brought to mind Dr. Johnson’s quip about second marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. The Ukrainians often give the impression of being quite capable of squandering opportunities without any “help” from Moscow. Indeed, if the Ukrainians are ultimately not willing to bite the reform bullet, they might save us all a lot of fuss by just capitulating to Russia now.

However, it is an utterly false dichotomy to argue that we must EITHER support Ukrainian reform, OR provide lethal weapons. Not only is there no inherent contradiction between the two, but they are in fact complementary. How is Ukrainian reform to have any chance at all of success if the Russians, more or less at will, can ratchet up the war in the east, draining Ukraine’s budget, spooking investors, stoking social tensions, and driving down the hryvnia? Make no mistake – Moscow’s nightmare scenario is not so much a Ukraine in the EU or even in NATO, but a successful, prosperous, reformed and independent Ukraine with the freedom of maneuver to make its own choices. Such a country would be equally impervious to Russian blandishments and coercion to join the Kremlin’s flagship Eurasian Union project, and could by example even undermine the foundations of Putin’s “managed democracy” at home.

Far from being an unaffordable luxury, or even a hindrance, a modicum of security is a precondition for any serious attempt at restructuring Ukrainian political and economic institutions and practices. Ukraine won’t get even that modicum of security without leveling the military playing field a bit.

The same consideration applies to the question of securing a negotiated settlement, even an interim one that merely freezes the conflict. Why on earth would Moscow agree to any compromise if the Russians can easily demolish the Ukrainian military and seize additional territory at any time Moscow can manufacture a suitable pretext? On the other hand, the prospect that further military action could entail significant loss of men and equipment could – in conjunction with ongoing political and economic pressure – change Moscow’s calculus. Casualties will not result in a flash mob of Russian soldiers’ mothers storming the Kremlin, but with time would undermine Russian popular support for the Kremlin’s current policy in Ukraine. Thus, the provision of Western weapons to Kyiv is not even intended to facilitate a triumphal Ukrainian march on Donetsk, but it just might help forestall a triumphal Russian march on Kharkiv or Odesa.

It is a factual error to maintain that there is no military solution to the conflict in Ukraine. There most certainly is a military solution, and we’ll recognize it if Russian forces – no doubt masquerading as anti-fascist Ukrainian freedom fighters – arrive on the Bug, the San, and the Tisa. Victory for the Ukrainians, on the other hand, would look very different from victory for the Russians – probably something like the Algerian war of independence. Recall that the Vietnamese did not defeat the Americans on the battlefield, nor did the Afghans overwhelm the Red Army, yet in the end it was the Americans and the Soviets who withdrew – and the military element was a key factor in the calculus. This is probably the best scenario Ukraine can expect – and the provision of Western weapons would be both efficacious and justified.

Finally, there are at least two dubious assumptions that underlie much of the realist analysis of the war in Ukraine. First is the belief that, if only Russia were granted its rightful place in the world (as defined by Moscow), the Russians would fall all over themselves to cooperate with us across a wide range of issues: Iran, North Korea, terrorism, nonproliferation, global warming, AIDS – you name it. Yet there is no basis for thinking that we can buy Russian cooperation in this fashion. The Russians have not been dilatory (from our perspective) on so many issues for so many years out of resentment or spite, but because they simply see their interests as fundamentally different from ours. Granting Moscow carte blanche across some zone of Russian privileged interests will not change that equation in the slightest.

The other unfounded assumption is the idea that, if only we can put this annoying little Ukraine matter behind us (inter alia, by compelling wide-ranging concessions from Kyiv), we can get back to the serious, if largely fruitless, business of securing Russian cooperation for our international agenda. Unfortunately for this line of thinking, the war in Ukraine is not some third-rate sideshow, it’s the main event. It is too late – roughly a year too late, to be precise – to avoid a new East-West confrontation. If the Cold War materialized gradually, with no precise start date, historians will be able to identify the beginning of the current confrontation practically to the minute, with the first appearance of little green men in Crimea. Russia has crossed a Rubicon in its campaign to overturn the post-Cold War order. Like it or not, we are already firmly in a post-post-Cold War Europe. It is wishful thinking, not realism, to pretend otherwise.

The argument for arming Ukraine has absolutely nothing to do with neo-con conspiracies, knee-jerk interventionist impulses, aspirations to spread democracy indiscriminately around the world, or a pathological obsession with keeping Russia down. Securing Russian cooperation internationally will not come from pandering to Moscow’s selective and self-serving “Russia as victim” narrative, but through a dawning Russian realization over time that their current course dooms them to enmity not only with the West, but with their ostensibly fraternal post-Soviet neighbors. Russia has embarked on a path to isolation, deprivation, chronic conflict and decline. The case for arming Ukraine is rooted in a clear-eyed, unsentimental recognition of this dynamic. In short, it is rooted in realism.

[featured image is file photo]

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