THE UKRAINE CONUNDRUM CONTINUED: TO SAVE OR NOT TO SAVE?

US Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poreshenko on February 5, 2015. He is meeting a few other Ukrainian officials and the leaders of Germany and France to discuss a joint plan of action to deal with continued escalation of the conflict. Reuters/Jim Watson
US Secretary of State John Kerry meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poreshenko on February 5, 2015. Kerry is meeting a few other Ukrainian officials and the leaders of Germany and France to discuss a joint plan of action to deal with continued escalation of the conflict. Reuters/Jim Watson

By Harry C. Blaney


Quotes on opposing views and supportive views on the critical decision for the United States to provide military to aid Ukraine. We will provide a few examples  over time to get a sense of both sides of the argument:

OPPOSITION TO ARMS AID TO UKRAINE:

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen:

“More weapons in this area will not bring us closer to a solution, and will not end the suffering of the population. We need to put a lot of pressure on the separatists and Russia in an economic and political way to find a solution at the table and not on the (battle)field because to give input to a potential escalation is not a good solution. We need a sustainable political solution for this area.”

(Article from Reuters written by By Adrian Croft and David Alexander, published February 5, 2015)

Eugene Rumer, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment and Thomas Graham senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff:

“Ukraine cannot win this conflict now. It will deepen the tragedy if soldiers are sent to fight in a hopeless battle. A free and independent Ukraine, a solid defense of the European order and a firm rebuff of Russian aggression are worthy goals. But they do not absolve us of our responsibility to consider the consequences of our actions. The current proposal to arm Ukraine does not meet that standard.” 

(Financial Times Article by Eugene Rumer and Thomas Graham, published February 3, 2015 as an Op-Ed.)


SUPPORT TO ARMS AID TO UKRAINE:

President of Brookings Institution Strobe Talbott and Director of Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at Brookings Institution Steven Pifer:

“Even with enormous support from the West, the Ukrainian army will not be able to defeat a determined attack by the Russian military. This point is well understood in Kyiv. The more appropriate goal of Western assistance should be to give the Ukrainian military additional defense capabilities that would allow it to inflict significant costs on the Russian military, should the Russians launch new offensive operations, sufficient enough that Moscow will be deterred from further aggression…A firm Western response can bolster Kyiv’s ability to deter further Russian attacks.”

(Brookings Institution Report: Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must do, by Steven Pifer and Strobe Talbott, published February 2015)

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter:

“My responsibilities would be to protect America and its friends and allies in a turbulent and dangerous world.” We need to support Ukraine in defending themselves.”

(Quoted from his testimony at his Senate Confirmation Hearing on February 4, 2015)


THE UKRAINE CONUNDRUM CONTINUED: TO SAVE OR NOT TO SAVE?

By: Harry C. Blaney III

Once again we are faced with a critical decision, which now seems imminent, as to whether to provide defensive combat weapons to Ukraine in the face of an onslaught of offensive weapons, supplies, and direction not least from direct Russian troops in Ukraine. The separatists are now on a major offensive with the aim of either destabilizing Ukraine or taking over a large proportion of the sad country. This includes the key section of South Ukraine which provides a land corridor to Crimea and would mostly block Ukrainian access to the Black Sea to the East.  The question is both simple and direct: either stand down and have Ukraine decimated to one degree or another by total defeat with essential Russian control or a major partition of the country; or supply major  arms and financial aid to either prevent further inroads by the Russian backed separatists or regain some ground and preserve Ukrainian independence and freedom to choose close relations with a democratic Europe.

There are strong voices in Europe and the West on this question. The New York Times reports a proposal to send $3 billion worth of weaponry and military equipment to Ukraine. The essential argument for action is that defeat and takeover of Ukraine by force of arms without any effective efforts to stop the attack would be a major act destabilizing the security of Europe, undermining NATO’s credibility, as well as undermining America’s own commitment to a “Europe whole and free.”  Also, 49 million Ukrainians would be living under Putin’s kindly hands forever as it did under Stalin and his successors in the Soviet Union days.

On the other side is the argument by two groups otherwise differing groups.  One is the liberals, who are opposed to added wars and their cost in lives and money and believe that U.S. action might only exacerbate the U.S. Russian conflict.  In the other group, there is an isolationist tendency of some right wing Republican libertarians to say to hell with the lives of other people abroad, and that we should stay out of the world’s problems no matter the cost to them, global security, or lives, unless others directly attack America.  On the strategic side some writers have argued that we can’t rescue Ukraine if the Russians make a full out effort and our action could escalate the conflict with unknown risks. Thus stay out.

The most recent news is a push back by the Obama administration on the provision of weapons to the Ukrainian government.  While the issue is supposedly under review the signals recently are that they are not clearly the “preferred” option.  The State Department Spokeswoman, Jen Psaki told reporters this week at the daily briefing that there is an “ongoing discussion” but that no decisions had been made in response to  The Times report on Sunday that the Obama administration is taking a “fresh look” at the question of military aid.

But Psaki on Monday said Washington is particularly concerned about “escalating separatist violence” and the rebels’ attempts to expand the territory they control beyond the cease-fire line agreed to last September in Minsk, Belarus.

“Naturally, we take into account events on the ground and events that are ongoing,” Psaki said.  She said the focus remains to find a political and diplomatic solution and that the U.S. and its Western allies have no interest in engaging in a proxy war with Russia. “Our objective here is to change the behavior of Russia,” Psaki said. “That’s the reason why we’ve put the sanctions in place.” 

As part of this push back, Ben Rhodes, deputy White House national security adviser, told CNN on Monday Feb. 2nd “We still think that the best way to influence Russia’s calculus is through those economic sanctions that are biting deep into the Russian economy.” Rhodes also said in the interview on CNN Monday February 2nd “We don’t think the answer to the crisis in Ukraine is simply to inject more weapons.” 

More recently this week on Thursday there is a key meeting in Kiev with the Ukrainian government leaders, Secretary John Kerry, and the leaders of Germany and France. The aim is to hammer out a joint plan of action to deal with the continued escalation of the conflict and Russian increased aggression. Kerry made it clear that a political solution is the preferred approach but that the U.S could not ignore Russian aggression.

The other recent development is the statement in Senate hearings of the nominated Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter that he was “very much inclined” to provide arms to Ukraine.

On Friday, the German and French leaders will go now to Moscow, where they are to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to discuss the situation in Ukraine. Mr. Hollande said that he and Ms. Merkel would present an initiative to end the fighting and guarantee the “full territorial integrity” of Ukraine.

Clearly, there is still some debate in Washington, and probably in NATO capitals, about the feasibility and the risks of direct lethal military aid as well as that economic sanctions still seem to remain a preferred tool for altering Russian behavior despite, so far, not inhibiting Putin to put even more military force and fighting on the table.

Frankly, there are elements of good and honest views on the part of some of the proponents of both positions. But the problem in my mind is that the costs of inaction clearly create a possible total breakdown of the security framework that was built at great cost after World War II, which gave Europe the prosperity and security it has had for decades under frankly the American security umbrella. It undermines American credibility globally. It is also argued that inaction may embolden Putin to push even further into NATO countries knowing that the West is incapable of action out of a fear of Russia.

Under these circumstances it is likely that some emergency assistance will be provided. The questions that need and should be asked and answered are: (1) How much and will they be sufficient to save Ukraine from defeat? (2) Can they be provided quickly enough to prevent major conquest by the Russian backed separatists? (3) What are other possible tools that can be invoked that might lead to a cession of conflict and withdrawal of Russian troops, assistance, and some kind of halt of conflict and an independent Ukraine?  A number of key Western leaders, not just the usual neo-cons, including George Soros, have argued strongly for an immediate commitment for a major assistance package before it is too late. How will other nations react?

In each of these cases the key and almost unknowable issue is the ultimate intent of President Putin towards his stated desire to recreate some kind of new Soviet Union (called EURASIAN Union perhaps) or in some people’s view, a new “Russian Empire”. Is he willing to destroy Russia in the effort much like Hitler? Is he simply pushing to get as much as possible at the least cost?  Will the Europeans act in ways that will add further real sanctions or give military aid to help deter further aggression?

My view is the President Obama, for a host of good reasons, cannot stand down and do nothing at this moment of severe added conflict. Putin is pushing the envelope to its extreme. The question then in terms of our action is how much, for how long and at what cost?  Also how can we mitigate the possibility of escalation and do we have a strategy still for a creditable “off ramp for Putin” that preserves Ukrainian independence and democracy? None of the issues or options are easy and there is no costless option, but that of the cost of living in a world of conflict and uncertainty and of high risk.

If there is a moment of historical and strategic importance it is now, and the question is both to ask for wisdom and even caution from President Obama, and perhaps hopelessly wisdom, or if not that, self-preservation by Putin and other leaders of Russia.

We welcome your comments!

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