Will U.S. Arms Resolve the Conflict in Ukraine?

Washington’s new special envoy to the country said it could help.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko meets with servicemen during his visit to Donetsk region, Ukraine on June 14, 2017.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko meets with servicemen during his visit to Donetsk region, Ukraine on June 14, 2017.  ( Mykola Lazarenk / Reuters)

The new U.S. special envoy to Ukraine negotiations announced the Trump administration is actively considering sending arms to Kiev’s forces so they can defend themselves against pro-Russian separatists.

“Defensive weapons, ones that would allow Ukraine to defend itself, and to take out tanks for example, would actually help,” Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, told the BBC in an interview Tuesday, noting such a move could change Moscow’s approach in the region, where the United Nations estimates more than 10,000 people have been killed since April 2014. “I’m not predicting where we go on this … but I think that argument that it would be provocative to Russia or emboldening of Ukraine is just getting it backwards.”

The conflict in Ukraine, which began in 2014 following the public ouster of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, flared when Russia moved to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Moscow has since been accused of backing Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country against government forces, though it has denied direct involvement. Despite reaching a ceasefire in February 2015, the terms of the agreement have been far from fulfilled. Indeed, the U.S. State Department condemned last week what it called “the deadliest one-day period in 2017” after eight Ukrainian soldiers were killed in 24 hours.

Russia had long viewed Crimea as part of its territory (the region was gifted in 1954 to Ukraine by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev), and Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence. The pro-Western government in Kiev has angered Moscow, and at least some of its actions in the country can be attributed to Russia’s regional status.

Though the U.S. has maintained its opposition to Moscow’s cross-border activity, it has stopped short of providing lethal arms to Ukraine. Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during the Clinton administration, told me this policy was due in large part to President Obama’s opposition to providing lethal aid in fear of escalating the violence. “People were not two years ago going to say ‘We like the idea,’ because they knew it was a presidential decision and they knew the president was cautious,” Pifer said. “In this case, I don’t think President Trump has taken a position, so they may feel they have a little bit more leeway.”

Trump has offered little specificity on his stance over the Ukrainian conflict, but he hasn’t formally ruled out providing arms either. Trump called on Moscow to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere” during his visit to Poland earlier this month, and told Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last month during his visit to Washington that the crisis is one “we’ve all been very much involved in.” But where Trump hasn’t been specific, others in the government have. In an address this month to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Air Force General Paul J. Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said lethal defensive aid to Ukraine is “more than just a military recommendation,” adding: “This will be a policy choice on whether or not we’re going to give the Ukrainian government the tools they need to defend themselves against what we believe to be a Russian-supported insurgency movement in the Donbass,” referring to the region in eastern Ukraine.

More than just giving Ukrainian forces a means to defend themselves, Pifer said the arms could serve as a way to compel Moscow toward a political resolution to the conflict. “Nobody on the Ukrainian side suggests to us that they were going to use the force to drive the Russians and the separatists out of Donbass—they know they cannot beat the Red Army,” he said, referring to the Russian military. “The advantage ... is giving them better ability to raise the cost to the Russians and the separatists of further aggression.”

The Russians may not see it that way. Though Volker insisted that arming Ukrainian forces would not be seen as a provocation, Moscow is unlikely to look on the move as kindly either. “There is a risk the Russians choose to escalate, and I think it’s a risk we have to acknowledge,” Pifer said, noting that as long as the Russians are disinclined to resolve the conflict, it could remain at a standstill.

“It hasn’t yet reached the point where they’re looking for a way out,” he added. “We’ve got to somehow figure out a way to change the calculation in the Kremlin.”