The Trouble With Arming Ukraine

Sending Lethal Weapons Would Backfire

Ukrainian forces outside Artemivsk, Ukraine, June 2015. Oleksandr Klymenko / REUTERS

“It’s long past time for the United States to provide Ukraine the lethal defensive assistance it needs to deter and defend against further Russian aggression,” said Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) in August—and not for the first time. McCain is arguably the most influential person in Congress on national security matters, so his words carry weight. But his is hardly a lone voice. Others, including John Herbst, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from mid-2003 to mid-2006, and Alexander Vershbow, an experienced American diplomat and deputy general secretary of NATO from early 2012 until October 2016, agree with McCain. So do former President Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, and a cluster of diplomatic and national security luminaries, who came out of the gate early on this issue in a report released in 2015.

The efforts of these individuals haven’t been in vain. U.S. President Donald Trump will soon decide whether to implement their proposal, and key members of his national security and military team favor doing so, according to recent statements from General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Kurt Volker, Trump’s top negotiator on the Ukraine crisis. Defense Secretary James Mattis has confirmed that the option was being “actively reviewed.”

Arming Ukraine won’t make Putin cry uncle.

Those who call for sending lethal arms to Ukraine (the United States and some of its NATO allies already train Ukrainian troops, and the United States has been providing nonlethal arms to Ukraine to the tune of $300 million in 2016 alone) claim that American weaponry will strengthen Kiev’s hand and compel Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate a just political settlement that ends the war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. 

They’re misguided. Worse, their proposal could be dangerous, for Ukraine and the United States. 

Arming Ukraine won’t make Putin cry uncle. Past experience—notably Moscow’s stepped-up intervention to save its Donbas clients in the battles for Ilovaisk and Novoazovsk

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