Why Ukraine needs weapons
MUNICH—It has become something of a mantra among diplomats and other foreign-policy analysts that there is no military solution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The only viable path to peace and stability, observers almost unanimously proclaim, is a diplomatic one. But, despite the recent ceasefire agreement announced in Minsk, ongoing violence—reflected in the violent expulsion of Ukrainian forces from the town of Debaltseve—strongly suggests that it is time to consider what is needed to block any Kremlin-imposed military solution.
Three influential American think tanks have already done so, and arrived at the conclusion that the United States should begin supplying Ukraine not only with more non-lethal aid (e.g., drones, armored Humvees and medical equipment) but also with “lethal defensive military assistance,” in the form of light anti-armor missiles. European governments, however, remain unwilling to reconsider their position on supplying defensive equipment to Ukraine, and have instead reiterated that a diplomatic solution is the only option.
Of course, from Ukraine’s perspective, a one-on-one military confrontation with Russia is not a viable option. Last year, when separatist forces in the Donbas region appeared to be crumbling under the weight of Ukraine’s counter-offensive, it seemed possible that Ukraine would be able to reassert its sovereignty over the area. But the Kremlin quickly deployed battalion-size tactical groups from the Russian Army to support the rebels. Ukraine’s relatively weak forces did not stand a chance.
The move exemplifies Russia’s commitment to do whatever it takes to prevent a military defeat of the separatist entities it has incited and forged into fighting units—a determination that has endured, even as the conflict has placed considerable strain on its armed forces. Given this, the prospects for Ukraine to reassert control over the Donbas region militarily are so slim that even trying to do so would be foolish.
If one considers the strategic ambitions of the separatists and their Russian patrons, Ukraine’s prospects are even bleaker. Beyond supplying the separatist groups with heavy and advanced weapons, and deploying special units and forces to support them, Russia now appears to be sending in “volunteers” to train a separatist army that could ultimately go on the offensive.
Such an army, separatist leaders hope, will enable them—at the very least—to secure control over the Donbas region. They would then be positioned to secure a “Novorossiya” statelet extending along the entire Black Sea coast, up to and including Odessa. And, in all likelihood, some would even dream of an eventual march into Kyiv.
To prevent this scenario from unfolding, a robust political dialogue with the Kremlin is clearly vital, as are continued economic sanctions to make clear that Russia will pay a rising price for the ongoing aggression. But trusting solely in a diplomatic dialogue and sanctions to bring about a lasting peace may be excessively optimistic.
A more comprehensive approach would focus on strengthening Ukraine in every respect. To this end, political and diplomatic support is essential. But perhaps even more important is backing for reforms aimed at eliminating corruption and promoting growth. The recent agreement with the International Monetary Fund is of immediate importance in this respect, and the agreement with the European Union on a Deep and Comprehensive Free-Trade Area is crucial to the country’s long-term transformation.
But if separatist groups, with support from Russia, believe that they can control Donbas and the Black Sea coast, efforts to rebuild Ukraine’s society and economy will amount to little. That is why Ukraine’s external partners must also help to strengthen the country’s defensive capabilities.
In such a charged situation, there will always be hotheads, eager to pursue military options. But the greater concern is the behavior of pragmatists, who identify weaknesses that can be exploited. If the Russian-backed separatists view Ukraine’s defensive capacity as a serious weakness, there will be little to compel them not to push forward in pursuit of their ambitions. A political or diplomatic solution would be next to impossible.
Security experts should identify which actions powers like the United States and Europe could take to improve Ukraine’s defensive capabilities. The requests for nonlethal equipment made by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the recent Munich Security Conference could provide some guidance.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others are clearly right when they say that there is no purely military solution to the conflict in Ukraine. But a year of talks and failed agreements has demonstrated that there is no purely diplomatic solution either. Only by eliminating—or at least seriously diminishing—the potential for the separatists and their Russian backers to continue their military campaign can Ukraine and its partners hope for a lasting political solution.
Carl Bildt is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden.
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