Smoking Putin Out of His Cave

Will Putin escalate if Washington arms Ukraine? Yes -- but it’s the only way to bring his covert war into the open, where it belongs.


To arm or not to arm, that is the question.

With battles raging in eastern Ukraine, it should be abundantly clear that the Euro-Atlantic community is involved in the most serious conflict since the end of the Cold War — less bloody, so far, but more dangerous than the Balkan wars. Absent a true breakthrough in the Angela Merkel-François Hollande effort to broker peace this week, the United States must decide whether to provide weapons systems to Ukraine.

This decision is fraught with danger; regardless of what the Obama administration decides to do, blood will be spilled. After leading thinkers from three think tanks, and Secretary of Defense nominee Ash Carter, advocated (in Carter’s case, hinted at) providing lethal weapons, various commentators typically skeptical of muscular foreign policy — including John Mearsheimer and, in Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt — spoke out against such a step. Like the advocates of further intervention, they have reasonable arguments: I agree with both of them that Ukraine should remain neutral, for example.

But I challenge the key argument they make, specifically Walt’s argument that Washington faces not a “deterrence” but a “spiraling” scenario generated by Vladimir Putin’s fears of Western encroachment — which thus makes deterrent action counterproductive. I know that argument well, because I, as acting national security advisor, agreed with it in August 2008, when Russian troops invaded Georgia. Not acting aggressively was the right choice then, but that is exactly why it is the wrong choice now.

Even if the lethal “defensive” weapons like anti-tank missiles that Ukraine’s government is calling for were shipped quickly (for once) to Kiev, the hard truth is that it really won’t make much of a difference on the ground. While better weapons would likely allow Ukrainian forces to do greater damage to insurgents and Russian paramilitary forces, Vladimir Putin is not likely to be dissuaded by body bags. American weapons would be a shot in the arm for the Ukrainian government, but that likely will not change the outcome of disguised Russian control of much of eastern Ukraine.

But something simpler and more powerful is at stake here: Providing arms would end Washington’s “not providing arms” policy, thereby establishing moral clarity as a first step in a long duel with Moscow. It is the established position of NATO, the European Union, and the United States that Ukraine is facing external aggression from Russia. Under those circumstances, to not provide arms is to undercut that position — to intimate that somehow the democratically elected government in Kiev is not fully legitimate, and is to blame for the conflict.

Critics of this policy argue that arming Kiev would only intensify Moscow’s reaction. That may be true, but it’s not entirely without utility. From a practical perspective, weapons shipments would give a battlefield edge to the Ukrainian army and would force Putin into a less covert means of pursuing his aggression — which has both moral and diplomatic value.

Of course, U.S. arms deliveries are not cost-free; they would generate diplomatic headaches by splitting Washington from most of Europe, and possibly even encourage intransigence in Kiev. Worries that shipping weapons would lead to a direct U.S.-Russian confrontation, however, are overblown: President Obama is not about to deliver munitions to Kiev that would put Moscow within shooting distance. But accidents happen in war, and thus this risk has to be managed. Still, the strongest theoretical argument against providing weapons to Ukraine is Walt’s “spiraling” worry — that, as Putin is not an aggressor but reacting defensively, it would only pour gasoline on the fire.

This is essentially the position the United States took in 2008 in resisting calls by Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to provide military support and weapons. The arguments against doing so made at that time are similar to those heard today: that Georgians were not spotless in triggering the conflict, that Putin was deeply committed, and that Russia possessed escalation dominance in the Caucasus (even more so than in Ukraine today). But the argument that prevailed above all in the National Security Council was that too strong a U.S. response would lock Putin’s Russia into a great power struggle — which we believed neither country really wanted.

In avoiding escalation by refusing to allow move troops or significant amounts of weapons into Georgia, however, we made a bet with history: If our restraint led to Moscow’s restraint, then a “win-win” relationship was possible. But if our restraint led to further Russian aggression — in particular in Ukraine given its proximity to NATO countries, size, resources, and location (and there was talk within the Bush administration that Kiev was next on Putin’s list) — then the jury was out on whom we really were dealing with.

We lost that bet with history, and I think it’s pretty clear whom we’re dealing with today. Putin has said that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical disaster of the century. But the biggest geopolitical question in European security in the last 25 years is not whether Russia accepts its loss in the Cold War — but whether it recognizes that, in modern Europe, losing the Cold War has no more impact on a state’s status and its people’s welfare than Germany losing World War II. The liberal international order whose apogee is found today in Europe rejects not only the world of Hitler, Stalin, and Tojo, but the world of 1914. And a Russia stuck in that worldview not only cannot participate in post-war European society; it actually threatens it.

It would be foolish after Georgia, after Crimea, and after what has transpired in eastern Ukraine to believe that Putin still doesn’t quite “get it” — that a bit more forbearance, or a little more understanding of how our mistakes fueled Russia’s resentment, will bring him to his senses. Rather, it is many in the West, for ideological or economic reasons, who don’t get it: Putin rejects a “win-win” liberal international order. It is he who plays by a different set of rules that harken back to 1914.

That is why the time has come to take risks, and why Barack Obama must introduce military force — however limited — into a dynamic that affects more than just Ukraine. Not because these steps will necessarily deter Vladimir Putin, but because it steels America and our allies, generates a new unity around the reality that is today’s Kremlin, and sends a clear signal to Moscow that we have bent and acquiesced for long enough. That the period of testing is over, and that Washington will resist, not submit.


James Jeffrey is currently Philip Solondz Visiting Fellow at the Washington institute. He served as ambassador to Iraq, Turkey, and Albania, and as deputy national security advisor.