After a two-year hiatus, the question of lethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine is back on the agenda‑specifically in the form of anti-aircraft capabilities and Javelin anti-tank missiles. The circumstances on the ground in Ukraine have changed considerably in two years, but the fundamental dynamic in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict remains the same – and it is that dynamic that drives the renewed impetus behind providing defensive arms to Kyiv.
In 2014-15, the front was fluid. Big tank battles were waged in places such as Ilovaisk and Debaltseve. Moscow’s Novorossiya ploy was down but not out, and there was a real question in the summer of 2015 whether Russian forces would attack the strategic Ukrainian port of Mariupol, or even attempt to create a land bridge across southern Ukraine to the Crimea.
Happily, for whatever combination of reasons, that assault never materialized. In the subsequent two years neither side has launched any major offensive, either to seize territory or to deliver a crushing blow to the opposing forces. The war has basically settled into desultory exchanges of artillery fire and positional fighting in the no-man’s land between the lines. If the conflict isn’t exactly frozen, it has at least congealed.
If the timing therefore seems a bit odd for a renewed effort to provide defensive military assistance to Kyiv, the specific weapons systems mooted also have some experts scratching their heads. As several analysts have observed, the fighting in the Donbas has no aviation component, so buttressing Ukraine’s air defenses would seem to be a pointless endeavor. Similarly, in a stalemated conflict being fought largely with artillery rather than tanks, the provision of Javelins to Ukraine would appear to be of limited utility.
Moscow is bound to take umbrage nevertheless, so we are already seeing a reprise of the anti-assistance arguments raised two years ago: Russia has compelling interests in its neighborhood, and we shouldn’t poke the bear; Russia will use its escalation dominance to ratchet up the fighting beyond the West’s willingness or capacity to respond; Washington lacks any real strategy, and is just blindly throwing more weapons into the mix. Thus, in our ham-handed attempt to help Kyiv, we will only manage to send the conflict spiraling out of control. Therefore, instead of provoking Putin, we should be trying to provide him an “off ramp” that would facilitate a Russian withdrawal while allowing Russia to save face and safeguarding its equities.
While not entirely without merit, these arguments betray a basic misunderstanding, both of the essence of the conflict and of the purpose in providing Ukraine with these specific weapons.
The pons asinorum for understanding the war in southeastern Ukraine is to grasp that the antagonists are not Russia and the United States, Russia and NATO, or Russia and the West. They are Russia and Ukraine. The matter at issue is not the status of the Donbas, but the disposition of Ukraine as a whole. The conflict is an existential struggle between two visions—either an independent Ukraine with Ukrainians pursuing their own national project, or Russia as a great power dominating Ukraine, and most of the rest of the former Soviet space, more or less unconditionally. This is essentially an either/or proposition rather than a split-the-loaf one.
Moscow’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine was an enormous gamble driven by the prospect of a large reward. The issue was not the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO; the 2008 Bucharest Summit pledge that Ukraine “will become a NATO member” was a dead letter, and the Maidan had done nothing to change that reality. Rather, the problem was that Kyiv had continued its drift away from Moscow even under the ostensibly pro-Russian presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, and the Maidan had accelerated Ukraine’s reorientation. Ukrainians remained well disposed toward Russia and willing to cooperate with their mighty northern neighbor, but their top priority was fostering their own national state and identity.
The disorder surrounding the overthrow of Yanukovych in February 2014 gave Moscow an opening to try an audacious gambit to recover Ukraine. However, apart from its stunning tactical success in seizing Crimea, Moscow’s wider campaign flopped badly. Far from rallying Russian-speaking Ukrainians to break with Kyiv and turn to Moscow, the Kremlin’s Novorossiya project confirmed and invigorated a sense of Ukrainian identity across the russophone south and east of Ukraine. The abortive attempt to break off half of Ukraine managed to bring only a devastated rump of the Donbas under Russian control. Moscow failed to capitalize on Ukraine’s 2014 interregnum and came up largely empty-handed.
Somewhat counterintuitively, this very failure makes it harder to facilitate a graceful Russian exit. The Kremlin missed its best post-Soviet opportunity to pull Ukraine firmly back into Russia’s orbit, but it is not, by all appearances, ready to give up and let Ukraine go off to pursue a European vocation. There is no combination of Ukrainian neutrality, linguistic and cultural concessions for Ukraine’s russophone population, or even tacit acceptance of Russia’s seizure of the Crimea that can induce Moscow to withdraw from the Donbas. Russian abandonment of the Donbas would equal abandonment of Ukraine; the loss of Ukraine would signify the demise of any meaningful Eurasian Union or “Russian world,” hence the end (or at least a drastic scaling back) of Russia’s restoration as a great power. Moreover, many Russians are convinced that Ukraine is simply part of their inalienable historical and cultural patrimony, regardless of what Ukrainians might think. Therefore, we can build all the “off ramps” we want, but Putin is simply not disposed—perhaps is not even able—to get off the freeway just yet.
One of the misconceptions impeding a practical approach to ending, or at least mitigating, the Russo-Ukrainian War is the false narrative that the fighting in the Donbas is an intra-Ukrainian affair—that Russian-speakers in the southeast rose up spontaneously to repel “fascism,” and that these “tractor drivers,” to use Putin’s phrase, valiantly held off the Ukrainian army using whatever weapons they could lay their hands on locally. Apologists for Donbas separatism, even when they can no longer deny Russia’s patent intervention in Ukraine,1 would still have us believe that the Donbas conflict is essentially a civil war rooted in deep regional differences, and whose resolution lies in sufficiently fulsome concessions to the just demands of the Donbas—principally, the assumption of a “Little Russian” rather than Ukrainian identity, the reversal of Ukraine’s European trajectory, and its reorientation toward (and preferably, complete reabsorption by) Russia.
Regional identities and differences in outlook have certainly played a role in post-Soviet Ukraine, but they never generated sustained, widespread separatist sentiment, let alone any viable separatist movement. At the outset of the disturbances in southeastern Ukraine in 2014 the hand of Moscow was manifest in the sudden appearance of Russians with no connection to the Donbas, often leading armed groups or abruptly proclaimed as leaders of some hitherto unimagined separatist entity. Exactly how they came to be in Ukraine or who chose them for leadership roles, no one could really say. They were not particularly successful at attracting active local support; whereas the Maidan protests in Kyiv regularly drew crowds in excess of 100,000, pro-Russian rallies in the south and east of Ukraine were hard-pressed to achieve a turnout of 5,000—with an undetermined number, at least in the Donbas, bussed in from nearby Russia. They proved rather more adept at seizing armories and government offices, and in violently dispersing pro-Ukrainian demonstrations.
One such Russian outsider, Igor Girkin (nom de guerre: Strelkov), suddenly and mysteriously proclaimed himself the Supreme Commander of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” in May 2014, and just as suddenly and mysteriously departed three months later. He has personally taken credit (if that is the correct word) for turning desultory agitation in the Donbas into armed conflict by leading his men into Ukraine, where they gunned down Ukrainian security personnel.2
A further indication of the external genesis of the conflict is the curious campaign for an entity dubbed “Novorossiya,” a term hitherto known only dimly from history books. Can anyone trace the indigenous development of a Novorossiyan identity in southern Ukraine, identify its origin and leaders, chart its activities and growth, or cite its manifestos? Of course not, because there was never anything of the sort. It was nationalist websites in Russia that were trumpeting the notion of Novorossiya, complete with maps and a contrived historical narrative, at a time when the idea of Novorossiya had virtually no organizational presence whatsoever in Ukraine itself. In fact, Novorossiya is a completely synthetic concept that was brought to Ukraine fully developed (or, to put it more accurately, half-baked) by Moscow’s agents.
Perhaps nothing demonstrates the artificiality of the notion of a “Ukrainian civil war” better than the utter inability of Moscow’s Donbas proxies even to present a coherent, consistent explanation of what they represent. Do they comprise two distinct “people’s republics,” Donetsk and Luhansk? Are they a single separatist entity called the Donbas, disavowing any connection with Ukraine? Are they the rump of a state called Novorossiya aspiring to unite all the russophone regions of Ukraine? Or are they the Piedmont of a new state entity, Malorossiya, dedicated to liberating all of Ukraine from…the Ukrainians? For a comparable situation, try to imagine the American Civil War with the Southern states unable to articulate whether they are 11 separate entities, a single Confederacy determined to separate from the Union, or the vanguard of a reconfigured Union in which the practice of slavery would be imposed on the North.
The impression of farce is compounded by the Donbas leadership’s odd sense of entitlement. Having angrily rejected any ties with the “fascist junta” in Kyiv, the proud, unbowed leaders of the Donbas proceed to stretch out their hands, palms upraised, and ask plaintively when Kyiv is going to resume paying their salaries and pensions.
The sheer inconsistency about what the Donbas even stands for belies the notion of principled, regional resistance to Kyiv and suggests instead a Kremlin frantically casting about for a workable Ukraine policy, throwing different, even contradictory, ideas against the wall in the hope that one will stick. This clumsy improvisation is a conclusive refutation of the implausible narrative that the Donbas conflict is essentially homegrown. If the Donbas rebels are separatists, let them pay their own salaries and pensions, and stop looking to Kyiv for handouts. And if they are instead the forefront of a great movement to liberate the “former Ukraine,” let them offer to start paying the monthly stipends of their separated brethren, the poor starving pensioners in the “fascist-occupied” portions of Malorossiya. The money, in either case, would have to come not from Donetsk, but from Moscow.
A final proof of the external impetus behind the Donbas war is the massive, ill-concealed use of Russian weaponry in the conflict. By some estimates the occupied Donbas contains one of the largest tank forces in all of Europe. There have been no major insurgent advances since the Battle of Debaltseve, hence no opportunities in more than two years to capture any significant amounts of Ukrainian weapons or ammunition. It simply beggars the imagination to suppose that the pro-Russian forces have continued to wage war all this time basically using only what they managed to seize from Ukraine prior to February 2015. One would have to believe that the Biblical multiplication of loaves and fishes had just been replicated in the Donbas, only with tanks, artillery, and ordnance.3 Moreover, the insurgents have curiously managed to obtain cutting-edge military capabilities, such as advanced drones and electronic warfare, which the Ukrainian army itself does not even possess. The inescapable conclusion is that Moscow is deeply and actively involved in arming the insurgency.
All in all, the Donbas presents a highly dubious scenario for an “internal conflict,” and trying to resolve it as such is a recipe for failure.
The second misunderstanding regards the purpose of the weapon systems proposed for Ukraine. Opponents of defensive assistance to Ukraine argue that the Ukrainians can never hope to defeat the Russian army in battle and retake the Donbas by force, and that arming Kyiv could never induce Putin to withdraw from the Donbas. These arguments are absolutely correct—but irrelevant.
Having failed to deliver a knockout blow to Ukraine in 2014, Moscow is hunkering down for a long-term struggle. Specific measures include enhanced troop deployments along Russia’s border with Ukraine, continued low-level military pressure in the Donbas, the construction of gas transit infrastructure bypassing Ukraine, and a relentless propaganda campaign depicting Ukraine as a fascist failed state ready to be tossed onto the ash heap of history. Additional activities that are probable but not conclusively provable include cyber-attacks, diversions, and assassinations of senior Ukrainian security personnel. Moscow’s strategy is to keep Ukraine down while preparing for another strike in the event of favorable conditions—some combination of a) a recovery of hydrocarbon prices; b) a distracted, pusillanimous West; and c) renewed domestic turmoil in Ukraine.
This is the context for Western policymaking on Ukraine, and in this context I dispute the charge that U.S. plans to arm Ukraine are being hatched willy-nilly in a strategic vacuum. The provision of anti-air and anti-armor capabilities to Ukraine is not about altering the balance of forces in the Donbas. Rather, it is a sober, considered response to the longer-term threat of a wider war in Ukraine. The clear strategy is to raise the cost of an expanded Russian military campaign against its neighbor. Arming Kyiv would complement other prudent measures to affect the Kremlin’s cost-benefit analysis—for example, allowing Russia no alternative but to continue transiting gas exports through Ukraine; Ukrainian preparations to wage guerrilla warfare in the event of invasion and occupation; practical measures to ensure that Western Europe could drastically curtail imports of Russian gas, if necessary; and laying the groundwork for much more damaging sanctions, as required, that would freeze assets and further curtail Russia’s ability to borrow overseas.4
These measures underscore the fallacy of Russian escalation dominance, a glib talking point derived solely from consideration of the Russo-Ukrainian balance of military forces to the exclusion of all other factors. It begs the question why Russia has not already used its unquestioned military predominance to obliterate Ukraine, either in 2014 or at any point thereafter, as Russian nationalists have pleaded. The reason is that Russian military escalation has the potential to trigger a host of dire consequences for Moscow. Among them are the perils of fighting a protracted guerilla war in occupied Ukraine, the enormous financial cost of occupying and rebuilding a country devastated by conquest, the probability of driving Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors into NATO’s embrace, and the likelihood of crippling Western sanctions targeting Russia’s overseas assets, energy and financial sectors, and state budget. It is these considerations, rather than Russian appreciation for Western forbearance, that have stayed the Kremlin’s hand thus far. As the Americans can testify from their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, overwhelming victory in military engagements does not automatically translate into the achievement of one’s wider goals. In the real world, the Kremlin’s escalation dominance in Ukraine is strictly circumscribed by the extremely negative repercussions that would surely follow Russian military action.
As useful as enhanced Ukrainian anti-air and anti-armor capabilities would be to dissuade a broader Russian invasion, an even stronger deterrent would be the certainty that, in extremis, Europe could quickly slash its purchases of Russian gas. In a conflict characterized as “hybrid,” it is comforting to contemplate that the West has a few asymmetrical tricks up its own sleeve in the event of renewed Russian military activity in Ukraine.
1See in particular the revealing March 2, 2015 interview with Russian soldier Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, who recounted how the Russian army had deployed his unit of 31 tanks to the Battle of Debaltseve.
2“It is I who pressed the trigger of war. If our unit had not crossed the border, ultimately all would have ended as in Kharkov or Odessa. …For all intents and purposes it was our unit that launched the flywheel of war, a war that continues to this day. …And I bear personal responsibility for what is happening there.” Interview with the newspaper Zavtra, November 20, 2014.
3It should be a fairly simple matter to verify the Ukrainian provenance of military equipment in the Donbas by having some impartial third party (for example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) check the serial numbers of at least the heavy equipment (tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and mortars) against a list of serial numbers of similar equipment found in the Ukrainian military’s inventory prior to 2014. In accordance with the Minsk Accords, any equipment not of Ukrainian origin would be removed from the Donbas.
4These pain-inducing measures would ideally be complemented by actions to strengthen Ukraine through political and economic reform—provided the governing authorities in Kyiv could ever be induced to undertake serious reforms.