Last week, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote a piece here calling for the U.S. to refrain from sending further arms to Ukraine. Unfortunately, the piece betrayed a lack of familiarity with the post-Soviet space and a broader ignorance of regional dynamics and came to a conclusion anathema to American interests, both current and future.
Dougherty’s conclusion — that President Trump, despite support from Congress and those in the White House, should hold off on delivering anti-tank missiles to Ukraine — rests on a handful of points. First, to Dougherty, the delivery of such missile systems would “not meaningfully deter Moscow’s aggression” because the “Russian public [has] proven willing to lose troops in battle over the last two decades in vicious wars in Chechnya.”
To those unfamiliar with the subject, there’s a whiff of truth to this argument, insofar as no amount of proposed American weaponry will allow Ukraine to defeat Russia outright. But the notion that defeating Russia outright would be the goal of any effort to arm Ukraine is simply false. No serious analyst has argued that American anti-tank arms would allow Kiev to “beat” Moscow. Indeed, the Kremlin’s regional “escalation dominance” remains one of the facts on which both sides agree.
Contra Dougherty, the purpose of sending weapons to Kiev would be to heighten the costs of continued conflict for the Kremlin, which is currently slogging through yet another year of negligible growth. Because while Dougherty may view Russia, especially its government, as willing to sacrifice sufficient troops to defend the beleaguered separatists in eastern Ukraine, all available evidence suggests the opposite.
There’s a reason Russian authorities have effectively shunned public acknowledgment of the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Authorities have already gone so far as to arrest elderly women attempting to understand Russia’s role in the region, and the country has seen lawmakers beaten simply for attempting to document Russian soldiers’ deaths. This is because while many within Russia continue to support the Russian-backed separatists in the region, their support is purely rhetorical, and will remain so as Russians’ belts keep tightening. At last check, barely 10 percent of Russians were willing to send their children to fight on the state’s behalf in eastern Ukraine — a reality the Kremlin, recently shaken by sudden, unprecedented protests, must recognize.
Dougherty, unfortunately, fails to discern between Chechnya (a constituent republic within Russia proper) and eastern Ukraine (a slice of the fanciful “Novorossiya” whose star has only waned since 2014). He may believe that Russians stand ready to sacrifice for greater autonomy in eastern Ukraine, but such claims only highlight his thin understanding of post-Soviet dynamics.
Perhaps most concerning of all, Dougherty appears to believe that backing Ukraine — a country he chauvinistically refers to as “not a particularly admirable state,” as if battling Russian-backed secessionists to a stalemate and effectively neutering Russia’s attempts at a Eurasian Union weren’t admirable accomplishments — with anti-tank weaponry is simply about “get[ting] Vladimir Putin’s goat,” whatever that may mean. It’s almost as if he views the maintenance of the post-Cold War order as a secondary concern.
Just like the current sanctions regime, which signals a Western unity in the face of Russian revanchism, the delivery of anti-tank weaponry to Kiev would signal America’s commitment to the post-Cold War European order and its international norms, which Moscow continues to threaten. After all, governments in Belarus and Kazakhstan — both, like Ukraine, signees to the Budapest Memorandum, in which they agreed to sacrifice their nuclear arsenals in return for assurances of territorial integrity — continue to eye Russia warily, even as they worry about whether the U.S. will live up to commitments Moscow has chosen to abrogate. Should the U.S. falter, its standing in the post-Soviet space, and elsewhere, will be further diminished.
Thankfully, Dougherty, like Trump, appears to be in the minority. Like President Obama — who listened impassively as numerous Cabinet members, from Joe Biden to John Kerry, argued in favor of delivering arms to Ukraine — Trump appears to be the only major figure in his own White House opposed to arming Kiev.