As Ukraine struggles to combat domestic insurgents and what appears to be a Russian invasion in all but name, numerous commentators have argued in favour of providing Ukraine with direct military assistance. NATO has so far left the decision to arm Ukraine up to individual member states. In both America and the UK, majority opinion is against the prospect, but the idea has gained popularity in some policy circles.
It is a tired cliché but the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions. While the instinct to support Ukraine against foreign aggression is often born of genuine sympathy, it is unlikely that arming Ukraine is going to lead to anything but a widening of the conflict, more death and destruction, and a far more aggressive Russian policy.
So-called ‘humanitarian’ interventions do have a fairly dismal track record. Western support for rebels in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi was driven by a desire to protect civilian populations against a leader who had shown that he was more than willing to kill, to remain in power. While many felt his regime’s collapse represented a new era, almost three years after his death, Libya is in the grips of a low-level civil war between weak government forces and Islamists, that makes life miserable for the very people the West set out to defend. Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing in post-liberation Iraq is almost enough to make even the most committed democrat long for the days of Saddam Hussein’s sociopathic but predictable regime. Arming Ukraine to combat a foreign invader stems from these same impulses, and is just as likely to be unsuccessful.
Direct military aid to Ukraine would bring the West into a proxy war with Russia.
Direct military aid to Ukraine would bring the West into a proxy war with Russia. Setting aside the diplomatic and economic fallout that would result from this, it would only harden Russia’s resolve, and would be used to justify an open, rather than covert invasion. The Russian media would present military assistance to its public as naked Western aggression waged against oppressed co-ethnics in Donbas. No longer constrained by even the need for the tiniest shred of plausible deniability, Russia would likely not only openly send in troops and equipment into Ukraine, but would feel completely within its rights to widen the conflict to other regions in Eastern Ukraine, like Kharkiv and Odessa, leading to greater devastation and human misery, and possibly even the end of the Ukrainian state as we know it.
Russia has consistently shown itself willing to do whatever it deems necessary when, rightly or wrongly, it feels its national security is threatened. This has been seen in Georgia, then in Crimea, and now in Donbas. Western condemnation has done nothing, nor have sanctions, as yet. Military aid to Kyiv is unlikely to be any more effective, and would, in fact, likely only harden the Kremlin’s resolve.
After months of anti-western television transmissions and a concerted state propaganda campaign, the Russian elite is now locked into a course of confrontation with the West. The Kremlin is not able to back down against an enemy it has painted as a ‘fascist junta’ carrying out a punishment campaign against ethnic Russians. Were this enemy equipped with Western-supplied equipment, backing down could result in a genuine public backlash against the Kremlin that would make the street protests of 2011-2012 look insignificant. Sadly, it is now political suicide for Vladimir Putin to accept anything less than a ceasefire and assurances from Kyiv of (at a minimum) broad autonomy for ‘Novorossiya.’
The Ukrainian army
Ukrainian forces continue to suffer from endemic corruption, a lack of a clear chain of command, and inexperience.
The Ukrainian army and the auxiliary units supporting it have been transformed dramatically since April when it suffered from desertions, a lack of morale, and a complete absence of conflict experience. While this transformation is impressive, Ukrainian forces continue to suffer from endemic corruption, a lack of a clear chain of command, and inexperience. Neglected for over 20 years, Kyiv’s forces are dependent on volunteers, civil society, and oligarchic largesse, to even be able to equip and field soldiers. While the Ukrainian army now is unrecognizable compared to what it was, it could not stand up to a full scale Russian attack any more than a large housecat could stand up to a Siberian tiger. When Vladimir Putin said he could, ‘be in Kyiv in two weeks’ he was being crass and intimidating, but he certainly was not lying.
There is also a danger that equipment provided to the Ukrainian army could be pilfered by corrupt elements, captured by rebel forces, or used even by the Ukrainian army or irregular units against civilians, either by design or by accident. Human Rights Watch has already strongly criticised the Ukrainian army for indiscriminate shelling, which has led to a massive loss of civilian lives. More effective weaponry, and in larger quantities seems likely to only increase human suffering.
Similarly, as the example of Mosul recently showed, providing expensive weaponry to an army that lacks training or morale can often end up with that weaponry falling into the hands of the very people you are trying to stop. Given how Russian rebels have already learned how to use anti-aircraft weapons systems they have acquired, allowing them to capture even more weaponry from Ukrainian forces seems like a dangerous prospect.
The limits of western power
Russia’s behaviour since February of this year has been nakedly aggressive and inexcusable; and it is natural that many people’s sympathies lie with a new (albeit flawed) government, brought to power following a largely democratic and pro-Western revolution. But that does not mean that arming Ukraine is going to help either ordinary Ukrainians or even their army; instead, it will likely only make a terrible situation even worse, entrench Russia even further and likely increase resentment in the Donbas.
Sometimes it is difficult to admit that a terrible situation is beyond our ability to control or at least significantly influence. But often admitting that fact is the first step to figuring out what we can actually do, however limited, to help.