In the final weeks of 2017, the White House approved transfers of sniper rifles and Javelin anti-tank systems to Ukraine, two deals constituting the largest sale of lethal military hardware to the country since 2014. This move represents the most dramatic shift in U.S. policy since Russia annexed Crimea and began backing a separatist insurgency in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, but these actions in isolation will do little to support Ukraine’s efforts to defend its sovereignty. Bolder action on the part of the U.S. and its allies in NATO and the EU is needed if there is to be any chance to resolve the frozen conflict in Ukraine’s east and deter Moscow from further irredentist aggression in the region.
The unfortunate situation that Ukraine finds itself in today can largely be attributed to the shock and subsequent caution that the Obama administration and European governments displayed when Russia’s aggression began in 2014. Putin’s actions challenged assumptions among Western elites that territorial conquest would never occur in Europe in the 21st century. Wary of getting embroiled in a geopolitical contest they had not expected to wage, and overestimating Russia’s capabilities, Western leaders made a timid and ineffective response to Putin’s imperial ambitions.
Putin is hardly the evil genius some would have us believe. He is clever and ambitious, to be sure, and he has a long view of history that holds Russia as uniquely destined to shape the future of Europe. But, like any savvy autocrat, Putin is reactive and cognizant of the constraints on his strategic ambitions. He is an opportunist: He will exploit the enemy’s vulnerabilities but he will also adjust his strategy in the face of pushback.
In 2013, Putin watched in horror as his longtime ally in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted by the pro-democracy, pro-EU Euromaidan protests. Fearing a less tractable and corruptible government in what he deemed his historically mandated sphere of influence, Putin gambled and went all in for Crimea, his confidence no doubt buoyed by both Obama’s failure to enforce the “Red Line” in Syria and previous Western inaction during the 2008 Russo–Georgian war.
The West’s response to Russia’s “Little Green Men” in Crimea was one of vocal condemnation and targeted sanctions. While the sanctions have hurt Russian defense firms and banks, they proved insufficient as a deterrent. Just weeks after the Crimea annexation, Russia was fomenting rebellion of ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk, eventually deploying special forces, artillery, and unmarked tanks directly in combat with Ukrainian forces.
The hybrid-warfare doctrine of Russian general Valery Gerasimov and his ilk obfuscates what is in fact a very clear picture. To be sure, there are erstwhile Ukrainian citizens in Donbass who genuinely yearn for greater union with Russia, if not a larger “Novorossiya” extending throughout southern Ukraine. But references to an “ethnic insurgency” are incomplete, as they belie the naked aggression of Russian military forces in Ukraine. A simpler word for the situation would be “war.”
Putin and his generals have created a frozen conflict that allows them to ramp up pressure on Kiev as they see fit. The slightest perceived provocation by Ukrainian forces (who are already subjected to daily artillery and mortar barrages) could serve as the pretext for an official Crimea-style annexation, if not worse. This makes the status quo untenable for Kiev, Washington, Brussels, and any other nation or institution that has a vested interest in halting a reversion to the bloody geopolitics that have characterized most of European history.
Putin and his generals have created a frozen conflict that allows them to ramp up pressure on Kiev as they see fit.
Fortunately, the U.S. and its allies have tools at their disposal to begin to apply pressure (albeit belatedly) on the Kremlin and ensure that Ukraine is adequately prepared to combat the full spectrum of Russian aggression.
For starters, the U.S. should better coordinate its sanctions efforts with the EU to ensure that Brussels adopts its own version of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, Congress’s newest batch of financial measures against Putin’s coterie. Pervasive corruption in the Ukrainian government undermines its ability to effectively wage war and allows Russia to exploit corruption-related grievances in Ukrainian society. As Michael Carpenter persuasively argues in a recent piece in Foreign Policy, the U.S. can do more to support Ukraine’s nascent National Anti-Corruption Bureau, which has come under attack from Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and his ruling party. The U.S. must also be vocal in its condemnation when Ukrainian journalists investigating corruption are harassed by authorities.
Additionally, the U.S. and its allies should ramp up their support for Ukraine’s military efforts in Donetsk and Luhansk. The U.S. 7th Army in Germany should expand its existing training and advisory program for Ukrainian forces to include exercises in armor, artillery, and electronic warfare. Improvement in these fields, and not the small-arms tactics that have heretofore been the focus of 7th Army training efforts, would prove decisive in a future confrontation with conventional Russian forces.
The U.S. can also expand its defense cooperation to help restock Ukraine’s outdated arsenal of artillery and armored vehicles. In addition to direct arms transfers, U.S. assistance could extend to supporting Ukrainian armaments manufacturers as they undergo modernization and refitting for domestic production, thereby providing a sustainable industrial base for a more competitive Ukrainian military. In these efforts, Washington should enlist the support of its European allies, many of which possess defense sectors far superior to that of Kiev.
We have wasted valuable time with half-hearted responses to one of the most egregious acts of military aggression of the 21st century. Washington has taken an important first step in signaling newfound support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and democracy but much remains to be done to prove the sincerity of this commitment.