Ukraine needs effective weapons to defend itself against a separatist war engineered by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The resistance of the Obama administration against arming a country determined to protect its independence and territorial integrity will prove ultimately counterproductive, as the tragic case of Bosnia-Herzegovina demonstrated over twenty years ago.
When Serbia’s dictator Slobodan Milosevic embarked on carving out a Greater Serbia from a collapsing Yugoslavia in 1991 by supporting proxy separatists, the West imposed an arms embargo on all the Yugoslav republics, arguing that fewer weapons would mean less fighting. But the impact proved the exact opposite. While Belgrade and Serbian separatists already possessed every variety of heavy weaponry inherited from the Yugoslav army, the newly emerging states of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were denied an effective means to defend themselves.
The consequences were dire, as Milosevic’s proxies murdered and expelled tens of thousands of civilians in a policy camouflaged as “ethnic cleansing.” The Bosniak Muslims suffered the full force of this brutal assault on their territories and people. In effect, the arms embargo on Yugoslavia escalated and prolonged the armed conflict, precipitated attempted genocide, and eventually pulled NATO into the crisis through air strikes and a subsequent peacekeeping operation.
The anti-civilian war and Alliance intervention culminated in the November 1995 Dayton accords, which established a divided Bosnian state that remains dysfunctional and unreformable to this day. All these negative developments were a direct consequence of state vulnerability, military weakness, and Western miscalculation at the outset of the Yugoslav conflicts.
The failure of the West to aid Bosnia militarily also served to radicalize some elements of the Muslim population and introduced foreign mujaheddin units into the war because the government in Sarajevo was desperate for any assistance it could muster. Some of these fighters stayed on to proselytize among Bosnia’s moderate Muslims and were suspected of generating anti-Western jihadism. In Ukraine, a lack of weaponry to resist Russia’s violent assault and the escalating slaughter of thousands of civilians will also embitter sectors of society and raise opportunities for nationalist radicalization.
Contrary to conventional official wisdom in the U.S. administration, arming Ukraine will not automatically lead to an escalation of the war. On the contrary, it is the inability of the Ukrainian government to fully resist the Kremlin-sponsored rebellion that will embolden further land grabs by Moscow and its local proxies. This will increase civilian casualties, already estimated in the thousands, force tens of thousands more to flee their homes, destroy more of the country’s infrastructure, further damage an already precarious economy, and undermine the reformist pro-Western government that Washington and Brussels have fully endorsed.
The basis of statehood, reform, and economic development is national security and social stability. Without effective self-defense against foreign-generated secessionism and outright invasion a country cannot build and consolidate its democratic institutions, pursue deep structural reforms, modernize its economy, or attract desperately needed foreign investment. The case of Yugoslavia needs to be carefully studied by our policy makers so that the same mistakes are not repeated in contemporary Ukraine.
There is also a larger strategic consequence of disabling Kyiv from fully defending its national independence. It sends two troublesome messages to the wider region. First, other vulnerable states along Russia’s borders will wonder whether they will also be left alone to face an aggressive Moscow if their sovereignty and territory is violated. And second, it signals to Putin that the West lacks unity and willpower and the Kremlin can reach for other potential prizes such as the Baltic states without fear of punishing military consequences.
For the past year, Ukrainian forces have demonstrated their determination to defend their country against superior Russian firepower. What they lack is the means to pursue a concerted defense of Ukrainian territory that would become a deterrent to further military aggression. With rebels pursuing new offensives in eastern Ukraine and Russia pouring in more troops and weapons across the porous eastern border, the time is ripe for arming Kyiv with more effective and lethal defensive weapons.
The list is readily available and includes anti-tank rocketry, sophisticated radars, secure communications equipment, and other items that would help deter and deny further territorial gains for Moscow. A program of Western training for Ukraine’s military will also enable better coordination and tactical expertize in confronting Moscow’s invasion.
There is another important element in this military equation that the White House seems to be neglecting. While Ukrainian casualties can be borne by a determined nation that is resisting Moscow’s offensives, climbing losses among rebels, many of whom are Russian citizens, and among Russia’s military forces will challenge Kremlin denials of direct involvement in the Donbas.
The war in Ukraine will become increasingly unpopular among Russia’s population, which is already facing a collapse in living standards because of Moscow’s economic incompetence. A bloody nose for Russia’s Milosevic in Ukraine may actually embolden the Russian people to call for an end to Putin’s imperial restoration project. Surely, our administration would welcome that?