The US is moving closer to a plan to aid Ukraine that could backfire dangerously

  • The Defence and State Departments are in favour of a plan to give Ukraine $US47 million to buy weapons from the US.
  • If enacted, the plan could provoke further military action by Russia.
  • The resources might be better used modernising the Ukrainian military through the country’s large and capable defence industry.

The chances the US will provide lethal aid to Ukraine increased last week, after National Security Adviser Army Gen. H.R. McMaster was given three options for how Washington could do so.

Both the State and Defence departments are pushing for the option that would give the Ukrainian government a $US47 million grant to buy “defensive arms” from US companies. Among the weapons that could be purchased are antitank missiles — possibly the FGM-148 Javelin, which the Ukrainian government has asked for in the past.

While the plan could give Ukraine access to advanced weaponry that could make a difference in combat, providing lethal aid to Ukraine could be counterproductive at best and catastrophic at worst.

Ukraine has been asking NATO countries — specifically the US — for weapons to fight Russian-backed separatists in its southeastern region, known as the Donbass, for some time. Ukraine has received nonlethal military aid from the US, but no weapons have ever been sent.

“Blankets, night-vision goggles are also important. But one cannot win the war with blankets,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a speech to Congress during his first official visit to the US. He added that his country’s soldiers “need more military equipment, both lethal and nonlethal, urgently need.”

However, providing Ukraine with costly and advanced US weaponry may only intensify the conflict.

Due to the Minsk peace agreements, the war in the Donbass is currently limited to skirmishes and artillery barrages — not massive offensives by armies seeking to gain territory. Antitank missiles would be of little assistance in this type of environment.

Though sending such weapons to Ukraine could deter future offensives and may help in skirmishes on the battlefield, the greater risk lies in the Russian response.

As the commander of the US Army in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said in 2015, “if the US policy changed to provide, say, Javelins, for example, that would probably lead to increased lethality on the battlefield for the Ukrainians. It would not change the situation strategically in a positive way, because the Russians would double down — they would dramatically increase more violence, more death, more destruction.”

Sending weaponry from the US to Ukraine would likely result in an immediate and forceful response by the Russian military before those weapons could be used effectively on the battlefield.

Russia has appeared willing to step into Ukraine militarily on multiple occasions. Western and Ukrainian officials said it was conducting cross-border artillery operations as early as 2014 and that it launched a direct military intervention in August that year, virtually reversing all the progress the Ukrainian military had made in the region.

Other problems with sending lethal aid to Ukraine include issues like Ukraine’s
corruption problem. In addition to creating supply problems for the Ukrainian military, that could result in some of the US hardware ending up in the hands of adversaries.

In any case, Ukraine itself has a very large defence industry which is very capable of making the weaponry the military would need to fight the separatists. Ukroboronprom, a Ukrainian defence collective, has already made things like the Phantom, an unmanned armoured combat vehicle, and the T-84 Oplot-M main battle tank, which is in service with the Thai army and could be sold to Pakistan

Ukraine also produces its own guided antitank missile — the RK-3 “Corsar.”

The problem is a combination of the Ukrainian defence industry’s focus on exports rather than the domestic market and that Ukraine simply cannot afford to modernise its military to effective standards.

The T-84 Oplot-M, for instance, has a price tag of $US5 million — money that could be used to upgrade 10 older and less advanced T-64 tanks. Ukraine’s urgent need for equipment and lack of funds forces it to prioritise quantity instead of quality. Providing funds for Ukraine’s own industry may make more sense.

The $US47 million proposal is unlikely to be approved while President Donald Trump is on a nearly two-week trip to Asia. Trump’s time away may give McMaster and other White House advisers more time to consider the impact of supplying weaponry to Ukraine.

As Michael Kofman, a global fellow at the Wilson Center and a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute, wrote in an August New York Times op-ed, “Empty signals or a few missiles will not prevail against this kind of adversary, and they’re not a smart way to help Ukraine, either.”

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