War has returned to Ukraine, if, indeed, it ever went away. As the media pours over Donetsk’s destroyed airport, senior figures in the West have begun to call for the arming of government forces. Congress has given Barack Obama the power to do so, but Josh Black argues that the President may prove reluctant.
Ukraine’s government has wavered between seeking peace and waging war. As The Economist noted on Friday, August’s failed offensive brought the recognition that it could not contain the rebel militias. That led directly the the Minsk peace accords, and a ceasefire agreement. Yet the breakdown of this ceasefire, which had never really generated much respite, has given way to a change in tactics. Now, Ukraine worries whether it has the forces to hold back a separatist offensive, especially if backed by Russian forces, as practically every Western government says that they are.
This week the Brookings Institute, a venerable and not always hawkish think tank, published a call to arms. Or rather, a call for arms. Nearly 70% of Ukraine’s anti-armour weapons were out of commission, it said. The government losing control of the skies to mounted and unmounted rocket launchers means the separatists have an edge both in their artillery and their surveillance of Ukrainian positions.
But the argument for arming Ukraine hardly lies in helping it make a decisive breakthrough, which now seems unlikely without the ability to cut the rebels off from the permeable Russian border. Instead, the report’s authors couched their arguments in terms of “raising the cost” to Russia of further escalation.
As a dissenting member of the Brookings Institute points out, that is nonsensical; to think seriously of a military deterrent, the West must decide how far it is willing to go to support Ukraine, and the answer is likely to fall some way short of the ends Vladimir Putin is willing to go to. A distinction between lethal and non-lethal assistance is becoming increasingly unhelpful, given the plight of Ukrainian forces, yet even the report’s authors want America to avoid providing direct operational assistance.
One concerning subtext to the report is the gap between NATO and Ukrainian intelligence. Politically, the two sides are united. Both agree on the presence of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory, although they disagree on how many. That difference, which might seem slight, could lead to greater differences in judgement in the future. Moreover, while Ukraine has scrapped a misalignment law and may apply to join NATO, few member states are likely to relish the Russian reaction or welcome a member with such unstable borders.
This is where Russian tactics have been most successful. As a recent BBC documentary has highlighted, Russia has effectively masked much of its activities through a mixture of disinformation, whataboutism and covert operations. Not only have they masked the “what” of their involvement, they have also given few clues as to the “why”.
The failure to understand what Putin actually wants from destabilising Ukraine, perhaps wrongly presuming that this is not the end in itself, has hampered policy-making. Basing the most significant strategic step of the whole campaign on that weak intelligence could be catastrophic. The West still has many tools for waging a long-term campaign. Many of them involve further sanctions.