As the war in Ukraine has dragged on, lobbying to supply lethal weapons to the Ukrainian government − to supplement ongoing diplomatic efforts, sanctions and the provision of some non-lethal military equipment and training to Kyiv − has increased. Both Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and President Petro Poroshenko have argued that the war is Europe’s and the US’s as well as Ukraine’s, and that lethal weapons are necessary for Ukraine to defend itself. ‘Without weapons, we lost Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine. This is the lesson,’ said Yatsenyuk. US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter and NATO figures such as Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove have also raised the prospect of supplying lethal weapons to help the Ukrainians defend themselves and ‘raise the costs’ to Putin of aggression in Ukraine.
But supplying lethal weapons to Kyiv would be a bad idea for several reasons. First, Western weapons alone will not help Ukraine defend itself. The reason Ukraine could not defend itself in 2014 was because of a 20-year degeneration of its military capability. This was in terms of equipment (in 1991, they were among the largest armed forces in the world), and the long-term lack of government support and leadership. Over that time, investment in the military declined steeply, defence ministers changed frequently, corruption became endemic and combat capacity declined (for several years before 2014, no brigade or battalion level exercises were held). Without first addressing this strategic picture – which has no quick fix – more weapons will make little positive difference.
Second, although the discussion is about ‘defensive’ lethal weapons, there is no guarantee that the weapons will be used only for defensive purposes if push comes to shove. If the Minsk agreement holds, then Kyiv will not need the weapons. But if it collapses, they may be pressed into service as Kyiv seeks to fulfil its stated aim to regain control over Donetsk and Lugansk (and even Crimea), starting a bigger conflict with Russia. Such concerns already appear to be behind the US decision not to provide counter-artillery battery radars, for fear they might be used to target artillery pieces firing from Russia.
Furthermore, though some suggest that US weapons will ‘raise the battlefield cost to Putin’, Russia does not see the ‘costs’ in the same terms as the US, and adding lethal weapons would provide the grounds for Moscow to escalate its own involvement. Russia could relatively easily match (or better) the supply of weapons to Kyiv with its own to the separatists, before US weapons arrive or could be effectively used. While Kyiv’s forces would need training to use US weapons, the separatists are ready to use those that Moscow could supply.
A third objection to supplying lethal weapons is the ongoing instability in Ukraine. The government in Kyiv faces not just major economic, political and social problems, but also serious questions regarding control of the armed volunteer battalions and the far right Pravy Sektor group, of which the shoot-out at Mukachevo is only the latest dramatic example. The risk that weapons might fall into the wrong hands was acknowledged by the (unanimous) passing of amendments on 10 June in the US House of Representatives to the Defence Spending Bill to protect civilians from the dangers of arming and training foreign forces.
The amendments block the training of the Azov volunteer battalion, which they suggested could attack the government in Kyiv. They also made explicit the dangers of supplying shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine (and Iraq), and their concern about the unintended consequences of ‘overzealous’ military assistance or the ‘hyper-weaponization’ of conflicts, and the possibility of radical groups acquiring them.
Indeed, lessons from other recent times the US has supplied weapons to unstable, war-torn areas suggest that such conflicts often evolve quickly, and the weapons fall into the wrong hands as interests and alliances change or they are seized by the enemy. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the Taliban and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have gained possession of US weapons, even using them against US forces.
This is important in the Ukrainian case, where problems such as low pay, desertion, corruption and the black market sale of weapons remain strong. It is likely that at least some of those supplied by the US would fall into the wrong hands – be they separatist, Russian or even ISIS.
The White House is among those who have opposed the idea. Officials have suggested that providing lethal weapons would inflame the situation and escalate the bloodshed. Furthermore, the idea is very divisive in the West, splitting the US from major European partners who oppose it, and, as a recent poll by the Pew Centre suggested, there is limited popular support for the measure throughout NATO.
So the downsides and risks of adding lethal weaponry considerably outweigh possible gains. Instead, diplomacy should remain the primary approach. This can be supplemented by other measures that, in due course, will assist the Ukrainians more effectively to defend themselves. First, the US and the EU could increase support to address corruption, smuggling and the black market in weapons. Second, the US and NATO could consider where and how best to assist with more strategic education of the Ukrainian military leadership and the wider reform and re-organization of the Ukrainian forces.
To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback