The US decision to supply arms to Ukraine is utterly misconceived, but it continues a pattern of confrontational short-term policy decisions which have become the norm in the US ever since the US military effectively took charge of the US government back in the summer.
Any policy whose reasoning is difficult to explain is almost by definition flawed, and this policy is no exception. Here are a number of possible explanations for this move.
(1) the US weapons are being supplied to facilitate a planned Ukrainian offensive to conquer the Donbass;
(2) the US weapons are being supplied as a gesture of political support for Ukraine in its continued confrontation with the two People’s Republics and with Russia;
(3) the US weapons are being supplied to enable the US to gain political leverage over Russia in the ongoing negotiations to settle the Ukrainian crisis;
(4) the US weapons are being supplied to help Donald Trump politically at home by stifling criticism that he is “giving up” on Ukraine and in order to show that he is “getting tough” with Russia.
The one explanation which can be ruled out is the explanation the US has given for its decision: that the US weapons being supplied are purely defensive weapons intended to deter a Russian attack on Ukraine.
The US must know by now that no Russian attack on Ukraine is in prospect or planned so this explanation cannot be true.
Not all these explanations are mutually exclusive and it may be that more than one of them applies. However as with so many other foreign policy decisions recently taken by the US this one does not look like it has been properly discussed within the US government or thought through.
Briefly, my guess is that the most commonly cited explanation within the US government to justify this decision is (3), with the weapons intended to provide the US with leverage in the negotiations underway with the Russians so that US can force Russia to a settlement of the Ukrainian crisis on US terns.
It has become increasingly clear over the last few weeks that the US misunderstood President Putin’s agreement that UN peacekeepers be sent to the protect the OSCE monitors along the contact line in the Donbass as a sign that the Russians were coming round to the Ukrainian idea of a UN peacekeeping force deployed throughout the Donbass to facilitate the restoration of Ukrainian control there.
Negotiations over the last few weeks have shown that this was an illusion and that the Russians are no nearer to agreeing to such a proposal – which they say (rightly) contradicts the Minsk Agreement – than ever.
The decision to send a limited number of weapons to Ukraine therefore looks like it could be intended to put pressure on the Russians to agree to this Ukrainian proposal for a peacekeeping.
If so then the decision is misconceived since instead of forcing the Russians to agreeing to the sort of the sort of peacekeeping force the Ukrainians are proposing, it is all but guaranteed to make the Russians harden their position still further.
Already the Russians are saying that the US cannot be a mediator in the conflict when it is arming one side against the other, and they are already broadly hinting that their response will be to step up their own arms supplies to the People’s Republics.
The effect of the US proposal will therefore be to make both sides in the conflict more heavily armed than ever.
That however is only the beginning of the trouble.
Though the US has not publicly said what weapons it intends to supply, it is likely that the weapons will include a batch of Javelin anti tank missiles.
These are known to be sophisticated weapons which are difficult to use and which require a high level of training if they are to be used properly.
If so then that points to a US training mission being sent to Ukraine to train Ukrainian troops in their use. That brings US troops even more directly into the Ukrainian military theatre than they are already, creating a serious risk that they will become directly involved in the actual fighting with all the catastrophic political consequences which may follow from that.
That fighting is now set to intensify. Irrespective of what the US intends by sending these weapons, the Ukrainians are bound to see their supply as an encouragement for them to take further military action.
In that case the high probability is not just that the Russians will step up their arms supplies to the two People’s Republics, but in a theatre where former US President Barack Obama once admitted that the Russians possess “escalatory dominance” they will do so on a scale which dwarfs whatever arms the US supplies to Ukraine.
It is a fundamental error to see the Javelin anti tank missiles as some sort of ‘magic bullet’ which will decisively turn the balance of the fighting in favour of the Ukrainians.
This idea probably originates in the mythology surrounding the US’s supply of Stinger anti aircraft missiles to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The arrival of the Stingers is frequently credited with causing the Soviet decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, though in reality that decision had already been made before the Stingers arrived. In reality, though the Stingers did have a brief impact after they were introduced, by the time of their withdrawal the Soviets were well on the way to developing effective counter measures to them, and their actual effect on the fighting was slight.
The point of the Ukrainian military’s greatest manpower and equipment advantage over the militias of the Donbass was in July 2014, when Ukraine deployed a fully equipped force of 60,000 men backed by tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery and aircraft against a few thousand lightly armed militia.
The Ukrainian army was unable to prevail then despite possessing a seemingly overwhelming advantage, and today when the two People’s Republics are said to possess fully armed and trained forces numbering 35,000 men it is all but impossible to see how they could prevail now. Supply of a batch of Javelin anti tank missiles – or indeed of large numbers of Javelin anti tank missiles – cannot change that picture.
With economic conditions in Ukraine likely to deteriorate over the next few months pressure within Ukraine for a military strike against the Donbass is anyway likely to increase. The US has now given it further encouragement.
More bitter fighting in Ukraine will follow, with a high possibility that Ukraine will go for broke and that Ukraine and the US will end up with another debacle.