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Supplying weapons to Ukraine: How to make it right?

The best possible way to provide weapons to Ukraine is by not substituting its NATO membership perspective. If Ukraine is to pay for Javelins with its NATO membership, it would hardly make it a good deal.

October 11, 2017 - Mykola Kapitonenko - Analysis

Image by Wikimedia Commons

Debates about whether to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine are gradually shifting from a purely academic discussion towards a matter of political choice. Implications are still unclear; risks are high, while the added value is questionable to many. It is time to get into a more detailed conversation. Whether weapons supplies would enhance Ukraine’s security and help resolve the conflict in Donbas depends on at least three issues.

First, Ukraine could – and probably should – be armed in a way that imposes additional costs on Russia and makes further escalation less, but not more likely.

This requirement is quite challenging. The Kremlin effectively controls levels of violence in Donbas, having indicated consistently that it would not tolerate any shift in the military balance between the Ukrainian army and armed forces of the so-called “DNR/LNR”. Russia’s military advantage over Ukraine is huge and there is no way to considerably shorten the distance. Concentration of military units next to the Ukrainian border and large-scale military exercises are sending clear signals of Moscow’s readiness to continue relying on military force to strengthen its positions in any possible future negotiations. Preserving military advantage is thus crucial for Moscow’s strategy. That is what post-Soviet frozen conflicts are about.

At the same time, escalation is already quite expensive for Moscow. The long absence of major offensives by Kremlin-backed units in Donbas is a result of combined political, economic, and diplomatic pressure on Russia. A political impact of any offensive in Donbas is quite limited, while the risks are many. Under these circumstances, it looks like Moscow would engage in military action only if some of its core interests are at risk. As long as Moscow does not perceive supplies of weapons to Ukraine as a factor capable of shifting the overall military balance in the east of the country, it is unlikely to raise the bets.

The issue of types of weapons is important in this regard. So far, the issue is all about defensive weapons, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles. But would it not be better to diversify the menu? Defensive weapons enhance deterrence and prevent a receiving country from involving a supplier deeper in a conflict by launching an offensive with newly acquired arms. On the other hand, this is the reason why supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons alone will not send a strong signal of its support to Moscow. A more diverse list of supplies would do a better job in deterring Russia.

Second, continuous weapons supplies are much better than a single transfer. Providing Ukraine with Javelins would certainly signal some level of support from the US, but a much more effective strategy would rest on series of arms transfers, within a properly designed time framework or even without an expiry date. Unlike a single delivery of even a rather sophisticated and/or expensive weapon, systematic supplies are capable of becoming a powerful deterring instrument. They generate expectations from both the receiving state and its adversary, which lead to strategic adjustments.

If Ukraine were to receive American weapons continuously, the strength of the deterring signal to Moscow would be maximised. That is even more so the case if no final date is specified. Moscow will have to take into account weapons supplies as part of a long-term US strategy, which even without the US being dragged into the conflict will be aimed at securing Ukraine’s survival. In other words, such a strategy will make the US more sided with Ukraine, but at the same time will not run Washington into the risk of providing security guarantees for Kyiv.

Here comes the third point. Supplying weapons, on either sales, loans or grants, is one of the most prudent options for a country willing to provide support for another. On the other hand, security guarantees are among most benevolent offers for a partner. Weapons supplies should not diminish Ukraine’s chances for joining NATO and/or other effective regional security structures.

When facing a choice between providing arms, security guarantees, or both, the US almost never chooses the latter. It is almost always either weapons or alliances. Weapons are less risky and easier. They provide some degree of control and ability to adjust the response. Security guarantees, on the other hand, involve a high possibility of involvement and put their credibility at stake. Ukraine’s strategic goal of joining NATO should not be replaced by supplies of weapons, no matter how numerous and long-term. We should keep in mind the future of European security, for which a well-armed Ukraine involved in a protracted conflict with Russia will be a far worse outcome than a democratic and peaceful Ukraine in NATO.

If the main idea behind American weapons supplies is to send signals to the Kremlin reaffirming the strong commitment of US to deter a further escalation by Russia, there are some specific requirements to follow. The first of them is that numbers matter: the quantity of weapons is important. Providing limited supplies or even one transfer is not enough. The more the better, and that is the case with deterrence of a strong adversary. Making arms supplies continuous, either until a specific date or until a specific requirement is met, is even better. Turning them into an element of a long-term strategy would discourage further Russian aggression without entrapping the US into the conflict.

But the best possible way to provide weapons to Ukraine is by not substituting its NATO membership perspective. If Ukraine is to pay for Javelins with its NATO membership chances that would hardly be a good deal. Weapons supplies and future NATO membership together will work much better.

Mykola Kapitonenko, Phd, is a co-editor in chief at UA: Ukraine Analytica.

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