Defending Europe by Arming Ukraine (cont’d)

Ukrainian troops at the battle of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine, 15 February 2015. Now in its fourth year, the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine shows no sign of ending anytime soon. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Ihor Kozak and Lubomyr Luciuk.

From previous issue

Since the US announced its intention to provide Ukraine’s forces with Javelins and the training required to use them, numerous commentaries have appeared, with some favouring and others questioning this decision. Supporters argue that doing so decreases the probability of further Russian aggression against Ukraine, while sending Putin an unambiguous message that the West is no longer willing to turn a blind eye to Moscow’s misbehaviour. Supplying Ukraine with ATGMs also signals that the West might perhaps become ever-more assertive in countering Russian aggression if and as necessary, potentially by providing additional military aid to Ukraine, through the application of enhanced economic sanctions or by deploying political pressure to further isolate the Russian Federation internationally. Commenting on the desirability of Javelins, Dmytro Tymchuk, a Ukrainian parliamentarian and military expert, somewhat bluntly observed early in September 2017: ‘If every Rostov-Buryat schmuck realizes that you can’t just go out in your T-72 tank deployed from the Urals to shoot with impunity at the positions of the [Ukrainian] Armed Forces, these [Minsk] agreements … now in a state of permanent coma might … start working’.

Critics, on the other hand, are convinced that arming Ukraine will only make things worse, believing Russia will not bend to the West’s pressure but instead will ramp up the fighting. Aside from the predictable rhetoric of official spokespersons and diplomats, however, there has been no specific comment from either Putin or any member of his influential inner circle on the Javelin deployment issue. Indeed, a late December 2017 prisoner exchange between Ukraine’s and Russia’s surrogates went ahead as planned and no significant escalation in fighting has been reported recently.

‘We are not asking for NATO troops to fight in Ukraine. We only request sufficient supplies of modern weapons to stop Putin before he moves further. Americans give these weapons to many of their allies, so why not to us?’

Even if one accepts the supposedly frozen nature of the Donbas conflict, there are now, according to the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, ‘up to 500 [Russian] tanks [deployed in the Donbas], four times as many operational tanks as the British Army’. And their number does not include the additional armoured fighting vehicles attached to Russian battle groups that are troublingly positioned astride Ukraine’s international borders (for a general review of Russian capabilities see this US Defense Intelligence Agency report). Even a superficial analysis of Putin’s rule suggests he can start a war or escalate an existing conflict without much reference to others, including an ill-informed Russian public, regardless of whether his next move is against Chechnya, Georgia, Syria or Ukraine. Yet recognising the damage Javelins will inflict on armoured vehicles and their personnel may be one of the few calculations that will give Putin pause.

So, for the moment, Ukraine’s enhanced defensive potential has not been tested. Possibly, Putin is waiting for the presidential elections of March 2018 to reaffirm his rule over Russia before he acts again. Perhaps he has other reasons that cannot yet be divined. What we do know is that he has time and again shown respect only for those who deal with him from a position of strength – signs of weakness provoking only his further bullying. And, having launched and sustained a costly four year war against Ukraine, still infuriated and in denial over the Ukrainian nation’s attempt to return to its rightful place in Europe, it is very unlikely Putin will withdraw Russia’s troops or begin abiding by the rules of international law, much less respect treaty obligations he long-ago discarded. Putin lamented publicly in April 2005 over the collapse of the USSR as the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century’ – instead of recognising it as the welcomed liberation of Eastern Europe. Given this, arming Ukraine may thwart the empire-rebuilding agenda of the current czar in the Kremlin. Doing so also secures the peace of Europe.