The world’s largest arms dealer, the United States, is leading an effort among NATO nations to dramatically increase the flow of weapons to the besieged government in Kyiv. While the Biden administration has resisted calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a move which could result in an overt hot war between major nuclear powers, the weapons transfers represent a significant escalation of Western involvement.
Despite strong efforts in recent weeks from NATO governments and many large media outlets to minimize or excise the relevant role Western powers played in the years leading up to Russia’s brutal invasion, there has been a sustained proxy war in Ukraine between Moscow and Washington for a decade. Unless the desired outcome is a full-spectrum war between Russia and the U.S.-NATO bloc, Western nations — particularly the U.S. — must ask themselves whether the current course of action is more or less likely to facilitate an end to the horrifying violence being imposed on Ukraine’s civilian population.
Throughout its two terms, the Obama administration resisted providing overt lethal assistance to Ukraine, concerned that such a move by the U.S. would provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, President Barack Obama maintained that stance, though his administration did provide a range of other nonlethal military and intelligence assistance to Ukraine, including training. That posture shifted under President Donald Trump, and Washington began a relatively modest flow of weapons shipments. Trump’s attempt to cajole Ukraine into involving itself in his electoral battle with Joe Biden notwithstanding, U.S. military support for Kyiv has ticked steadily upward.
Even before Russia’s invasion, the Biden administration had begun a process of increasing lethal aid. In his first year in office, Biden approved more military aid to Ukraine — some $650 million — than the U.S. had ever provided. On February 26, as a result of Putin’s invasion, the guardrails came off: an “unprecedented” additional $350 million weapons package was pushed through. There is now wide bipartisan support in Washington for an immediate and aggressive $13.5 billion effort to ship American arms and other assistance, including humanitarian aid, to Ukraine. The package will also cover the cost of additional deployments of U.S. military assets and troops to the region. Historically, weapons shipments to Ukraine have taken months to implement. Now they are moving within days.
The U.S. has moved at remarkable speed to deliver the weapons approved by Biden in late February: A range of Javelin antitank missiles, rocket launchers, guns, and ammunition have already made their way onto the battlefield. “The shipment of weapons — which also includes Stinger antiaircraft missiles from U.S. military stockpiles, mostly in Germany — represents the largest single authorized transfer of arms from U.S. military warehouses to another country,” according to the New York Times, citing a Pentagon official.
More than a dozen other NATO countries and several non-NATO European nations have started or expanded their weapons shipments to Ukraine. In a significant move, Germany broke with its long-standing policy of not sending weapons to conflict zones. As part of its initial package, Berlin is moving some 1,500 rocket launchers and Stinger missiles and potentially additional Soviet-era shoulder-fired Strela missiles. The European Union has also broken its own resistance to providing lethal assistance and entered the arms market with a commitment of nearly half a billion dollars in weapons to Ukraine. EU treaties prohibit the use of budgetary money for weapons transfers, so the union tapped funds from its “off-budget” European Peace Facility. “For the first time ever, the EU will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to a country that is under attack,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “This is a watershed moment.”
The substantially expanded and expedited Western arms shipments, and increased intelligence support, could prolong large-scale military action. NATO has also said that any Russian attack against the supply lines facilitating the flow of weapons to Ukraine will trigger an invocation of Article 5 of the NATO charter, thus raising the specter of military action against Russia. Moscow, which has already labeled the sweeping sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies a declaration of “economic war,” has warned that nations sending weapons to Ukraine “will be responsible for any consequences of such actions.”
The weapons will not be sufficient to defeat Russia militarily.
The weapons will surely aid Ukrainian forces in waging counterattacks against Moscow’s invasion but will not be sufficient to defeat Russia militarily. Should Moscow succeed in forcibly taking major Ukrainian cities or even in toppling the government, the Western weapons are likely to be used in a protracted armed insurgency and war of attrition that may produce echoes of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The dominant Western media and government narrative about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine requires a total rejection of the legitimacy of any Russian security concerns. Viewing Putin as an unhinged madman coldly acting out of a love of brutality and conquest may be a more satisfying narrative, but it will not bring an end to the war. Any diplomatic or negotiated resolution of the crisis will necessarily entail Ukrainian concessions, so it’s important to understand Moscow’s point of view. In an interview with ABC World News on March 7, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to acknowledge this. “I think [Putin] is capable of stopping the war that he started,” Zelensky told David Muir. “And even if he doesn’t think that he was the one who started, he should know one important thing, a thing that cannot deny, that stopping the war is what he’s capable of.”
It is understandable and reasonable that people across the U.S. and Europe are demanding their governments send more weapons to support Ukraine in resisting the Russian invasion. Without the Western-supplied weapons Ukraine already possessed, it is very likely Russia would be in control of much larger swaths of the country. It is also vital that people advocating such a policy consider whether a sizable increase in U.S. and NATO weapons transfers will prolong the conflict and result in even more civilian death and destruction.
If the Western position is that Russia must publicly admit that it is criminal and wrong, and if such a confession is a precondition to any negotiation, then flooding Ukraine with even more weapons is a logical move — especially if you believe that Putin is insane and wants to bring the world to nuclear war and annihilation if he is not able to seize Ukraine. If, however, the aim is to end the horrors as swiftly as possible, then we require a serious analysis of the impact such large-scale weapons shipments will have on the fate of Ukrainian civilians and the prospects for an end to the invasion.
If the flow of weapons delays a negotiated settlement between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO, then it is hard to see the massive scope of the weapons transfers as a clear positive.
It may be the case that the flow of Western weapons to the Ukrainian forces will so bleed Russia that it pulls out of Ukraine, fatally damaging Putin’s grip on power and saving many lives. In that case, these shipments will be seen as a decisive factor in Ukraine’s defeat of Russia. But if it doesn’t, and the flow of weapons delays a negotiated settlement between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO, then it is hard to see the massive scope of the weapons transfers as a clear positive.
In a thoughtful analysis for Responsible Statecraft, Russia expert Anatol Lieven argued that Ukraine had already achieved a significant victory against Putin. “For it is now obvious that any such pro-Russian authorities imposed by Moscow in Ukraine would lack all support and legitimacy, and could never maintain any kind of stable rule,” Lieven wrote. “To keep them in place would require the permanent presence of Russian forces, permanent Russian casualties and permanent ferocious repression. In short, a Russian forever war.” He argued, “The Ukrainians have in fact achieved what the Finns achieved by their heroic resistance against Soviet invasion. The Finns convinced Stalin that it would be far too difficult to impose a Communist government on Finland. The Ukrainians have convinced sensible members of the Russian establishment — and hopefully, Putin himself — that Russia cannot dominate the whole of Ukraine. The fierce resistance of the Ukrainians should also convince Russia of the utter folly of breaking an agreement and attacking Ukraine again.”
The U.S. and NATO are not going to kick countries out of NATO, and Putin knows that, despite his call for an effective return to NATO’s 1997 footprint. NATO is not going to withdraw its forces and weapons from Poland, the Balkans, or the former Soviet territories of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. But Putin clearly believes his demand that Ukraine enshrine neutrality in its laws and commit to staying out of NATO is realistic. In recent days, critics of NATO expansion have pointed to the 2008 observations of Biden’s CIA Director William Burns as particularly relevant on this point. “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin),” Burns noted in a diplomatic cable from Moscow to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, which he quoted in his 2019 book “The Back Channel: American Diplomacy in a Disordered World.” “In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
Russia is also demanding that Ukraine recognize the independence of the two breakaway territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, and that Crimea is Russian territory. Since 2014, an estimated 14,000 people — including large numbers of civilians — have been killed in fighting between the government — aided by paramilitaries, including armed neo-Nazi elements — and Russian-backed insurgents, mercenaries, and paramilitaries in the eastern Donbas region. The practical reality now is that Russia appears to be on its way toward consolidating control of those areas. Barring direct NATO intervention, Ukraine would have to sacrifice an immense number of lives and resources in what would almost certainly be a failed military venture to wrestle back even nominal control of these territories.
Despite the absurdity of Putin’s sweeping portrayal of Ukraine as a state run by Nazis, there are murderous fascist elements in Ukraine, including some that have been given official legitimacy within its armed forces. Since 2018, largely because of the work of Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and other progressive lawmakers, there has been an official ban on U.S. assistance going to the far-right Azov Battalion. Verifying that the ban is being respected by Ukraine is almost impossible, especially now that Azov is an official part of the country’s National Guard. If the U.S. were blunt in publicly condemning the role of neo-Nazis and other far-right actors in Ukraine, including those within the armed forces and semi-official militias, it would help undermine Putin’s exaggerated rhetoric.
Given the long history of fascism in Ukraine, dating back to World War II, it’s dishonest to dismiss the ongoing involvement of neo-Nazis in the politics and armed forces of Ukraine. In the midst of the invasion, and with the massive flow of Western arms into Ukraine, it is unimaginable that U.S. and NATO weaponry will not fall into the hands of some of these forces. Minnesota Democrat Rep. Ilhan Omar is one of the few members of Congress to publicly criticize the increased flow of weapons. She said “the consequences of flooding Ukraine” with weapons “are unpredictable and likely disastrous,” and that she was particularly concerned about “paramilitary groups w/out accountability.” In her Twitter thread on the issue, Omar clarified, “I support giving Ukraine the resources it needs to defend its people, I just have legitimate concerns about the size and scope.”
The steady post-Cold War expansion of NATO, combined with the U.S.-backed removal of a democratically elected, pro-Russia president in 2014, along with the increased flow of weapons to Ukraine, and the bloody eight-year war against Russian separatists in the east of the country are all major aspects of Moscow’s narrative. They do not in any way constitute a reasonable justification for this brutal invasion, but this history will all be relevant to any peace settlement.
There is much discussion these days about the events in Ukraine heralding a new era in international order. Within the elite U.S. foreign policy power structure, we are witnessing evidence of a merging of neoconservative Cold War politics and the “military humanism” at the heart of the Clinton administration’s justification for military action in the 1990s. Putin’s own actions have contributed to an expansion of the very threats he claims to be confronting. His criminal invasion of Ukraine has fueled U.S. and NATO efforts to increase their ground forces near Russia; the U.S. has deployed more than 15,000 troops to Europe in response and the total number of U.S. troops in Europe is approaching 100,000. The invasion has attracted even more neo-Nazis and white supremacists as “foreign fighters,” and they are pouring into Ukraine under the cover of defending the country against foreign aggression. Russia’s actions will also further flood the region with mercenaries and weapons that can easily be transferred and trafficked. The Russian economy is being pummeled, and brave protests against the war are spreading inside Russia. Putin may have some fifth-dimensional chess he believes he is playing, but everything we currently understand suggests that he has made a monumental series of severe military and political miscalculations.
The Biden administration has made a number of decisions over the past two weeks that indicate there are influential voices of restraint at high levels of power in the administration. This week, the U.S. nixed a proposal by Poland to transfer MiG-29 warplanes to Ukraine, saying it could be viewed by Russia as escalatory and make direct conflict between NATO and Russia more likely. On March 2, the Pentagon canceled a previously scheduled intercontinental ballistic missile test, and the administration has made a consistent case against imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine despite impassioned pleas from Ukraine and indications that many Americans want one — or think they do.
The decisions made now in Washington, other NATO capitals, and Moscow will have sweeping ramifications for years to come. Citizens of Western nations cannot control the actions of Putin, but they can advocate for commonsense responses from their own leaders. This requires considering the predictable and foreseeable long-term consequences of short-term action. In the face of heinous atrocities against civilians and a heartbreaking refugee crisis, it is understandable that good people would demand extreme action in the name of bringing it all to a halt. The tragic reality is that escalation by the U.S. and NATO will not achieve that, certainly not without grave costs, and could lead to an even worse catastrophe for Ukrainian civilians, if not a wider global conflict. In that case, the only beneficiaries will be those who are now winning the war in Ukraine: the weapons manufacturers and arms dealers.