When they have command of their senses, U.S. policymakers tend to think better of involving our nation deeply in Ukraine. So this week’s calls from lawmakers and policy wonks to arm Ukraine are a sign that the Trump and Russia scandals have concussed our political class.
Sending weapons to Kiev makes no more sense today than it did two years ago. You may recall the last time “arming Ukraine” was floated. In 2015, fearing a Western-backed putsch would permanently pull the country from Russia’s sphere of influence, Vladimir Putin took a gamble to preserve the Kremlin’s access to the Black Sea Fleet and annexed Crimea. Contrary to popular perception, this was not a demonstration of Kremlin strength, but a last resort. A truly strong Russia would have been able to keep Kiev under its influence and preserve its access to the Black Sea without force. In fact, in 2010 Putin used his popularity in Ukraine and Russia’s diplomatic might to help his preferred candidate, the fantastically corrupt grifter, Viktor Yanukovych, over the line in presidential elections.
Ukraine is a deeply divided country. Its most-recent presidential elections revealed a stark conflict between the agrarian, Ukrainian-speaking north and west on one hand and the Russian-speaking south and east on the other. It is also not a particularly admirable state. Successive governments in Kiev have turned out to be ineffective and/or hopelessly corrupt. Even the Western-supported Viktor Yushchenko arguably usurped the role of Ukraine’s courts when dissolving Parliament in 2007. This is not a stable democracy.
It is also a country many Russians see as deeply woven into their own history. Anti-Communist dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn summed up some of the Russian attitude toward Ukraine when he wrote in 1990 that, “All talk of a separate Ukrainian people existing since something like the ninth century and possessing its own non-Russian language is a recently-invented falsehood.”
Poland ceded Kiev to Peter the Great in the 1690s. Needless to say, Russia has a much longer history with Ukraine than the United States can claim. Ukrainian membership in NATO periodically comes up, but Ukraine would be one of the most difficult countries for NATO to defend, while contributing little to the alliance, partly because its government is so indebted to the Russian state.
Yes, Putin’s government continues to foment pro-Russian unrest and separatism in the Donetsk region. But giving Ukraine some anti-tank weaponry would not meaningfully deter Moscow’s aggression. Russia is a massive land power, with over 20,000 tanks. The Russian state and the Russian public have both proven willing to lose troops in battle over the last two decades of vicious wars in Chechnya. Russia has many economic levers of influence over Ukraine, ones that the West could not help to match without now-unthinkable commitments of political will and ready cash. And sending arms to Kiev would play right into Putin’s narrative of Western meddling, which has been hugely effective in swaying its target audience: Russian-speaking Ukrainians see the U.S. as complicit in overturning a democratic result in 2015, even if their defense of the result is that they cheated to get it fair and square.
Ultimately, Ukraine is of peripheral interest to the United States and Western Europe even if annoying Russia has incredible appeal right now. Giving it arms, or extending to it a kind of quasi-membership in NATO might irritate Russia, but it would also create a new dependent for the U.S. And it could embolden Ukrainian nationalists to do something foolish, the way that Mikheil Saakashvili jeopardized Georgia in 2008 by acting provocatively once he thought he had the backing of the West.
Punishing Russia is obviously at the top of our leaders’ minds. But arming Ukraine would mean escalating tensions precisely where American commitments can do the least good and are not at all credible. There are better ways to get Vladimir Putin’s goat. We should consider them, instead.