How to Start a Proxy War with Russia
Arming the Ukrainian government would be a bad idea, no matter what the next defense secretary says.
The report makes little mention of the fact that light counter-battery radars had already been sent by the United States last fall, that Russia had matched these with its own, completely nullifying any advantage they might offer, or that mobile MLRS and artillery are unlikely to fall victim to counter-battery fire in the first place. The real problem is that many of Ukraine’s munitions are long past their service lives, the United States has no replacements for them or a quick fix for the lack of training and experience amongst Ukraine’s soldiers. The administration was right in arguing that any weapon we provide will be matched by Russia, escalating the conflict with no advantage gained for Ukraine.
In the same vein, the authors keenly argue for the provision of armored Humvees. A piece of equipment not only long derided by U.S. troops and due for replacement, but also an unnecessary recommendation in light of Ukraine’s advanced defense industry. Ukraine is highly capable and proficient at producing indigenous lightly armored vehicles and heavy tanks. This is actually Ukraine’s defense industry’s area of expertise, and why the country has been successful as an arms exporter. In fact, its assembly plants have come up with a number of new designs already going into production, while the country still has vast stores of Soviet armor that can be refurbished and are being actively placed into action.
Provision of defensive weapons fails to address Ukraine’s poor tactics on the ground and use of existing weapons, which have included ruinous armored counterattacks, having cost its forces countless T64BV tanks and mechanized equipment and failure to retreat that leaves soldiers to be encircled by separatists. Similarly, radio and secure communications are important, but not an answer to the completely uncoordinated attacks being launched by Ukraine’s army and its volunteers. They are unable to communicate not for shortage of radios, but due to a lack of unity in the war effort, and complete fragmentation of the forces involved.
Finally, UAVs, some of which have already been provided by Germany, will not prove effective, either. The authors of the report recommend the provision of medium-altitude UAVs, after stating that Russian armed forces are operating advanced air defenses throughout eastern Ukraine. In truth, there is video evidence of Russian air defenses including the TorM2, the Pantsir-S1 and the now-infamous BUK that shot down MH17. Medium-altitude drones cannot fly in this kind of air-defense environment. Stating that Russia has air superiority contradicts the recommendation to send such drones, which require the operator to have air superiority.
Again, the point of these criticisms is not that doing nothing to help Ukraine is better than doing something, although the specific recommendations are unlikely to achieve their intended effects. It is that the thrust of these policies is to drag the United States into a proxy conflict with Russia, in an attempt to raise costs for Vladimir Putin, which will be fought out by Ukrainian soldiers and paid for most likely with Ukrainian lives. In reality, nothing short of a difficult political compromise is possible to end this conflict. Kyiv will indeed have to make sacrifices as a result of Russian aggression, it has lost territory, and Moscow is clearly willing to stake everything in this conflict. More than likely the key battles in this war have already been fought, or are being fought right now, and they have proved to be defeats for Ukraine. Javelin anti-tank launchers will not prove to be a silver bullet, but rather an additional escalation, especially when Russia’s military calculates it could destroy Ukraine’s armed forces in a matter of days at will.
In truth, the reason for the current winter offensive that was launched on January 13th is often misunderstood. It is widely recognized in Moscow that signing the Minsk ceasefire was a wholly unforced strategic mistake, as it achieved none of its stated political objectives, while making Russia a party to the conflict with obligations that could subsequently be pointed to by the West. Minsk remains a dead ceasefire because of a fundamental disagreement over the sequencing of how the deal should be implemented, not because Moscow could think of nothing better than to launch a ground offensive in January, the worst month for such operations. Russian leaders will not withdraw their forces, or restore control of the border, until they first see that Kyiv is willing to give political status and recognition to the separatists.
Ukrainian leaders naturally have no desire to grant true political recognition or autonomy to the separatists, and Russia has no interest in abandoning them to be completely crushed by political, economic and military pressure from Ukraine. Hence, Moscow and Kyiv did not fulfill their respective obligations under this agreement, or withdraw troops according to the secret protocol signed on September 19. That protocol stipulated a line of control that neither side honored. The separatists desire more territory to make their enclaves viable, while Ukraine’s leaders didn’t want to deal with the domestic political calamity that would result from admitting defeat or giving up territory for peace. In Kyiv, the leadership is divided, mindful of public sentiment and afraid that if they cut a deal with Moscow, a third Maidan could ensue. Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, recognizes that he needs to compromise with Russia, but he also needs to be visibly pressed into this by the West, due to the strength of other sentiments in Ukraine and his rivals. Sending arms undermines his position, and instead reinforces those who unrealistically wish to keep fighting.
The reason for the resumption of the current war is that Russia’s leadership has wagered a colossal amount of political capital on its invasion of Ukraine. It is perhaps a matter of life and death for the current political system, and a core interest of Russia that it is unlikely to give up on, no matter the amount of Western political pressure or weapons sent. This is especially so given the casualties will be almost entirely Ukrainian on both sides. After Minsk, the West keenly levied economic and diplomatic pressure for Russia to implement provisions of the ceasefire agreement, while Kyiv had to do essentially nothing except hold the existing line of control. This presented Moscow with either policy capitulation, or continued suffering under the sanctions regime. Either way, the West had time to wait, and Russia did not. For the West, politically it was brilliant, diplomatically it was brilliant, but militarily it was dangerous. Russia has undertaken its only viable option, to launch another offensive, defeat Ukraine and erase the Minsk agreement by forcing Kyiv to sign a new one.
Undoubtedly, there are no easy solutions to the current conflict in Ukraine, only hard choices to be made. Sending weapons without an overall strategy is not a hard choice, but it is one that the United States has readily made before, often with adverse results. Providing anti-tank missiles to the Free Syrian Army did not change Syria’s or Russia’s calculus, but rather prolonged the demise of the FSA at the hands of Assad’s forces. Russia continues to arm Syria, the conflict continues to cost hundreds of thousands of civilian lives and the FSA is almost completely destroyed, but with no resolution in sight. Arming the militias of Libya and conducting air strikes on their behalf, with no strategy to create a Libyan nation or a Libyan army post-Qaddafi has resulted in one of the most disastrous American foreign policies in the region. Iraq is another example that providing weapons does not a fighting, or a successful, army make. Now ISIS forces drive around in American Humvees, while Shia militias have access to M1A1 Abrams tanks and MRAPs. It is important that the United States learn from these mistakes and seek a better outcome for Ukraine.
Michael Kofman is a Public Policy Scholar at the Kennan Institute, Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Vitaly V. Kuzmin/CC by-sa 3.0