Policy Analysis 18 March, 2015

The US and the Debate over Arming Ukraine

Osama Abu Irshaid

Osama Abu Irshaid is a Jordanian academic, lecturer and writer of Palestinian descent who resides in Washington, DC . He gained his PhD at the UK’s Loughborough University, after having completed an MA at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
Dr Abu Irshaid is the founder and Editor in Chief of the US-based, Arabic language Al Meezan newspaper. He is the author of several different papers in both Arabic and English, including (together with Paul Scham) “Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility” published by the United States Institute of Peace. Dr Abu Irshaid also frequently appears as a commentator on a number of Arab satellite television stations.

Introduction

The latest developments in eastern Ukraine have constituted a clear dilemma for the United States, as seen in sharp internal American debate on whether to arm the Ukrainian army, after more than a year of growing Russian intervention in support of separatists in the country. Amidst this controversy, US President Barack Obama's administration finds itself in a quandary. The administration’s reluctance to supply the Ukrainian army with "non-offensive lethal weapons" has revived the previously made allegation that its approach to foreign policy shows weakness and absence of leadership, undermining the credibility of the United States among allies, and impinging on its prestige among adversaries. Similarly, hesitation on Ukraine has strained the Obama administration’s relationship with the Republican Congress and those Democratic parties pushing the president to adopt a policy that goes beyond economic sanctions on Russia, toward arming and training the Ukrainian army.  Beyond the usual suspects among media and think tanks, the American debate on arming Ukraine extends throughout an administration that is itself divided on the issue, recalling a similar dilemma back in 2012 on arming Syrian rebels. At that time, the White House resolved in favor of not arming the rebels, a decision seen by many in the United States and abroad to have paved the way to the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In parallel with the internal pressures faced by the Obama administration to arm the Ukrainian army, Germany and France have exerted their own pressure against arming Ukraine, in fear of a possible escalation of tensions in Europe’s backyard. Thwarting any US effort to arm the Ukraine, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande worked tirelessly with the Russian and Ukrainian sides to reach a peace agreement, succeeding in bringing together Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian Petro Poroshenko to sign the "Minsk Agreement" on February 12, 2015, in the Belarus capital of Minsk.

Under the agreement, both the Ukrainian and the separatist forces backed by Russia committed to withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines in eastern Ukraine, with observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)  monitoring the cease-fire. The clauses of the agreement also provide for exchange of prisoners, amnesty for those involved in fighting, holding local elections in some regions of eastern Ukraine, and the enactment of a constitutional amendment giving the eastern regions greater autonomy, with Ukraine to take full control of its eastern border with Russia by the end of 2015.[1]

Although the agreement has eased tensions, it did not halt the fighting, with each side seeking to expand their areas of influence and to enhance their position in negotiating a final agreement. With violations of the agreement continuing, the Obama administration faces increasing pressure to arm Ukraine and “learn from the failure of the first Minsk agreement,” of September 2014.

The Argument in favor of Arming Ukraine   

Advocates of arming the Ukrainian army presented their argument in a report written by 8 military officials and former US politicians, and published jointly by three American think tanks – the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institute, and the Chicago Institute for Foreign Affairs.[2] The report calls on the United States to provide Ukraine with 3 billion dollars of lethal and non-lethal defensive combat assistance over the next three years so that it can defend itself. The report states that if Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention is not halted, the West should expect more provocations from the Kremlin in the future. Western economic sanctions on Russia, it argues, however effective, will not be sufficient to stop the Russian aggression. The report’s authors believe that US military assistance to Ukraine may deter Russia from expanding its aggression, or at least make it more difficult to occupy more Ukrainian territory. The following is offered as justification[3]:

First, reluctance of the United States and NATO to arm the Ukrainian army may encourage Russia to expand its intervention in eastern Ukraine and lead to Russian linkage with Crimea through an effective control of southeastern Ukraine.

Second, if the United States allowed this, it would threaten the West’s security system throughout Europe and Eurasia, as Moscow may feel emboldened to replicate its intervention in Ukraine in Estonia and Latvia, and attempt to force a change in borders under the pretext of protecting the large Russian-speaking minorities therein. Such a scenario would severely test NATO, whose Charter states, in Article V, that aggression against one Member State is an aggression against all members.

Third the United States, Britain and Russia pledged, in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 and in exchange for its giving up its nuclear weapons, to respect Ukraine's sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and safety, and not to wield threat or use of force against it. Any lack of respect exhibited by the United States for these safeguards would send a negative message to America's allies with regard to any future guarantees it might offer, particularly in the cases of Iran and North Korea.

Fourth, the arming of the Ukrainian army, while unlikely to lead to the defeat of the Russian army, would make the cost of any new Russian military expansion in Ukraine so expensive as to bring the Kremlin to re-calculate and agree to serious negotiation of a real peaceful settlement.

The logic of the above argument is broadly supported in Congress, even within the Obama administration. Many members of both Democratic and Republican parties in Congress call for the president to arm Ukraine so that it can defend itself, and consider it to be the moral and strategic responsibility of the United States to do so.[4]  In December 2014 the House and Senate unanimously passed a bill that authorizes the President to send weapons to Kiev; Obama signed the bill, but with an added clause rendering implementation subject to Presidential discretion. Now, another effort is underway in Congress to pass a law obliging Obama to start the process of arming Ukraine.[5]

Sources inside the administration confirm that Vice President Joe Biden supports arming Ukraine, something he hinted at in his speech February 7, 2015 at the Munich security conference in Germany, where he pledged the administration’s continued support of “Ukraine’s security needs".[6] In fact, according to one US official, Biden’s speech had originally included additional lines in support of arming Ukraine that were deleted by a representative of the National Security Council – though this is denied by Biden's office.[7]

Members of Congress reported that Secretary of State John Kerry voiced a similar position during the Munich Conference, and although State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stressed that the weaponry under discussion was entirely "defensive", and that the focus at the moment was on finding a diplomatic solution, she did not deny the report.[8]  Ashton Carter, the new Secretary of Defense, had already expressed his support during the Senate confirmation hearings installing him in his post. [9] Commander of NATO forces in Europe, General Philip Breedlove has for some months called for broader US military support to Ukraine.[10]

 
To continue reading this Policy Analysis as a PDF, please click here. This Policy Analysis was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version, which appeared online on March 5, 2015, please click here.

[1] Ian Traynor, “Putin tried to delay Ukraine ceasefire deal, EU summit told,” The Guardian, February 13, 2015, http://bit.ly/1MHqMW8

[2] Steven Pifer, Strobe Talbott, Ambassador Ivo Daalder, Michele Flournoy, Ambassador John Herbst, Jan Lodal, Admiral James Stavridis and General Charles Wald, “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do,” Brookings, February 2015,  http://brook.gs/1zNAcvQ

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nancy A. Youssef and Tim Mak, “Democrats Are Now Pushing Obama to Give Guns to Ukraine,” The Daily Beast, February 10, 2015, http://thebea.st/18SoGnf

[5] Andreas Rinke and Aleksandar Vasovic, “Obama says still weighing decision on arming Ukraine forces,” Reuters, February 9, 2015,  http://reut.rs/173bPxE

[6] “Remarks by the Vice President at the Munich Security Conference,” The White House, Office of the Vice President, February 7, 2015,  http://1.usa.gov/1C8YqvI

[7] Josh Rogin, “Kerry Tells Lawmakers He's for Arming Ukraine,” Bloomberg View, February 9, 2015, http://bv.ms/1DB0HUR

[8] Ibid.

[9] Luis Martinez, “Defense Secretary Nominee Supports Arming Ukrainian Military,” ABC News, February 4, 2015, at: http://abcn.ws/1LMCNZU

[10] Eli Lake, “Key General Splits With Obama Over Ukraine,” The Daily Beast, April 4, 2014,  http://thebea.st/R9pJGq