Introducing "lethal defensive weapons" into the Ukraine conflict seems the right thing to do. It confirms the visceral Western feeling that Russia -- the country where, "they make no pretense of loving liberty" as Lincoln once put it -- only respects force. American policy makers in particular are pushing for swift action in order for the Kiev loyalist troops to reverse their recent battlefield setback against Russian supported rebels and the Russian military in the Eastern part of the country. A recent report, written by eight former senior U.S. foreign and defense officials, calls for $1 billion in immediate military assistance, followed by "additional tranches of $1 billion in FY 2016 and FY 2017".
The report lists a number of additional items needed to push back against rebels such as counterbattery radars, drones, secure communications capabilities, armored Humvees and medical support equipment. Above all, military assistance should include light anti-armor missiles, given "the abysmal condition of the Ukrainian military's light anti-armor weapons."
Limited military assistance will assuage those voices calling for a more assertive U.S. policy vis-à-vis Russia, calm those segments of U.S. society that fear another "foreign adventure" involving U.S. troops, and sends a clear message to European allies that America and its security umbrella can still be counted on during geopolitical ill-winds. In short, limited military assistance will be too little to win the war, and too much to lose. This U.S. approach highlights an important feature of American political culture: compromise.
Yet, the Ukranians, who would seem to benefit most from American intervention, won't. So far the fighting has killed more than 5,300 people. With the introduction of lethal defensive weapons, new offensives and counter-offensives will also increase casualties. Some hotheads in Kiev already hypothesize a "Second Afghanistan" for Russia, wanting to bleed Moscow dry. Such a guerilla war would be devastating for what is left of Ukraine. Washington is once more in a situation, where policy makers fatally believe that we can bomb the other side to the negotiation table. To quote the hubris of Henry Kissinger: "A fourth rate power like North Vietnam must have a breaking point."
My question is: what comes after the weapons deliveries and the slush money? What comes after FY 2017? And in the worst-case scenario, are we truly ready for a proxy war?
Lethal defensive weapons alone will not suffice for Kiev to defeat the rebels and might actually spur Russia to step-up its support. If delivered, these weapons could very well turn the tide and bring a temporary military victory for Kiev. However, rebel forces beaten back across the border will re-group and launch Russian-backed counter-offensives and initiate a tit for tat spiral. President Putin knows that America and Europe may have the clocks, but he controls the time - at least on the military front -- and as a consequence, after the loss of much blood and treasure, all sides will return to the negotiation table.
If the West wants to provide arms to Ukraine we have to adopt an all or nothing approach: Either we commit to total war or withhold lethal military aid. Anything in between will accomplish precious little and prolong a bloody stalemate. Angela Merkel made a clear choice: no weapons for Ukraine (at least publicly). Of course, given the capricious fortunes of war, this stance may require readjustment in the future.
Russia has not launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, yet. Ukrainians know what they can expect from Germany and the rest of Europe. It is the fickle boosterism of American political patrons that may warm Kiev to a fatal ambition that spells trouble in the months ahead.