In late December 2017, while many were making plans to celebrate the Christmas holiday, the Trump administration announced it would begin providing lethal aid in the form of FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles to help Kyiv in its fight against Russian-backed separatists in its’ Eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In this piece, former U.S. Army Captain and SAIS graduate John Rugarber examines the risks associated with arming Ukraine, and an alternative route for Washington.


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Although the December announcement that Washington would finally begin providing lethal aid to Kyiv was met with celebration by Russia hawks and Ukrainians alike, there are several issues with providing the advanced Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine that Congress should consider before completely blessing the sale. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert stressed that while the weapons could kill, they were entirely defensive in nature, as Ukraine has the right to defend itself and is not seeking to attack a country outside of its borders. This decision was met with little resistance from the American public and so far, has gained widespread support in Congress.

First is the argument made by Spokeswoman Nauert concerning the defensive nature of the weapon. While she is correct at the strategic level of warfare that this weapon cannot be considered offensive because Ukraine is not seeking to expand its pre-2014 territory or attack another sovereign nation, she is ignoring both the tactical and operational levels of warfare, in which these weapons can definitely be used to support offensive operations. According to Clauswitz’s theories on a strategic defense, a side is only on the defensive until it is strong enough to transition to the offensive. Providing Kyiv with Javelin missiles will give them the edge over Russian tanks that they have desperately sought since the offensives against Luhansk and Donetsk were stymied by the infusion of Russian armour – ergo resuming offensive operations at the tactical and operational level. Further to the point, the Javelin does not come with a switch that disables the weapon system when it is used for offensive operations – it is not a particularly intelligent weapon system. Thus, if Kyiv wishes to resume offensive operations to regain its territory, the Javelin will work just as well supporting said operations as it would defending Mariupol against a separatist onslaught. Thus, the entire “defensive weapon” statement does not stand up to cursory scrutiny.

As with almost every conflict in recorded history, a countermeasure to this weapon system will probably make its way onto the battlefield, which could result in escalation as a countermeasure to that countermeasure is deployed as a response.

There are serious political ramifications to supplying Javelins to Kyiv as well. Since nothing happens in a vacuum, U.S. lawmakers should ask themselves what the Russian response will be to this action. As with almost every conflict in recorded history, a countermeasure to this weapon system will probably make its way onto the battlefield, which could result in escalation as a countermeasure to that countermeasure is deployed as a response. In essence, an arms race could start in Eastern Ukraine as one side tries to gain a military advantage over the other. The end result will be yet another proxy war fought between the U.S. and Russia at the expense of the local populace. This is perhaps why the UN specifically forbids third parties from supplying either side of the conflict with weapons – one only has to look at Syria to see what the effects of ignoring such statues can lead to. Also, it is important to remember that one of the major reasons why Germany and France did not invite the U.S. to the negotiating table during the 2015 Minsk peace efforts was because the U.S. threatened to supply Kyiv with lethal aid back then, which in Germany and France’s eyes would only make a bad situation worse. U.S. lawmakers should again ask themselves what the long term implications are in its access to diplomatic movement around the conflict and its relationships with France and Germany (both of whom do not believe in a military solution) before unilaterally deciding to arm Kyiv – is the juice worth the squeeze?

Alternatives

Rather than provide weapons to Kyiv, the U.S. should look to engage itself in the Ukrainian conflict in less lethal ways. Pulling a page out of the 20th Century’s playbook, the U.S. should consider a Marshall Plan-esque program run through Kyiv in order to try and win over the population in the breakaway republics, whose industries are beginning to function again, but whose basic life support systems like electricity suffer from the near-daily shelling. Washington could provide logistical support to Ukrainian utility and public works companies to help Kyiv rebuild its infrastructure. Then, it should advertise these efforts on traditional media and social media platforms such as VK (popularly known as “Russian Facebook”) to show the people of the breakaway republics that indeed life is getting better in Ukraine, no thanks to Russia. The U.S. could also offer incentives to Ukrainian public works companies that will hire people from the breakaway republics in the event of reunification, thus giving them a job as well as an opportunity to rebuild the East. Since the U.S. will operate in the background and only supply Ukrainian companies with logistical support, it will put a Kyiv face on this effort and while the people in the Donbass might know where the supplies are coming from, it might appear as if Kyiv cares enough about them or is signaling a new direction in the war by asking the U.S. for these supplies.

This might force Russia or Donetsk to develop an equally or more effective reconstruction plan, thus touching off an “aid race” instead of an arms race—a race the U.S. is well equipped to win and financially able to sustain over a long period of time, and one which would provide less propaganda opportunity for Russia’s President Putin’s domestic “strongman” image to leverage. This act alone will not end the war, but it is a far more constructive and less lethal way for the U.S. to enter the Ukrainian conflict than providing Javelin anti-tank missiles and if it fails, no side is worse off than before the aid program started.

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John Rugarber is a former United States Army Captain and graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. John is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Conflict Management, and focuses on Europe, Russia and the former Soviet Union states.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Lance Cpl. Sarah Petrock

 

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Written by John Rugarber

Former US Army Captain and graduate of the United States Military Academy with multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Conflict Management.

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