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Don’t Turn Ukraine Into the Next Syria or Libya

By flooding the country with arms and foreign fighters, Western leaders could be paving the way for future conflicts.

By , a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Employees unload a plane carrying new U.S. security assistance provided to Ukraine, at Kyiv's Boryspil airport on Jan. 25.
Employees unload a plane carrying new U.S. security assistance provided to Ukraine, at Kyiv's Boryspil airport on Jan. 25.
Employees unload a plane carrying new U.S. security assistance provided to Ukraine, at Kyiv's Boryspil airport on Jan. 25. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

When Russia invaded Ukraine, it was a watershed moment for the Western world—a moment that evoked a sense of history, urgency, and existential struggle. After all, this was a return of the 20th century’s bogeyman attempting to redivide Europe and redraw the Iron Curtain. All these emotional triggers lent a romantic quality to Ukraine’s struggle against Russia that the Western world indulged in.

The policy response was parsed through these lenses of urgency and romanticism. Weapons were sent, young men traveled from afar to Ukraine’s front, and the militarization of a population of 41 million people was cheered as plans to fast-track the country into the European Union were made. And this only keeps dialing up. This month, the United States is sending drones, helicopters, and howitzers to shore up the defense of the Donbas while other allies prepare anti-aircraft missile launchers, artillery, and potentially even fighter jets to support Ukraine’s war effort.

It is an eerily similar throwback to the days when popular revolutions against former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned violent and policies to support the well-meaning revolutionaries were dictated by hopefulness, righteousness, and an urgency that lacked due care and planning. The effects of this, like in the Middle East and North Africa, could be that the West is sowing the seeds of the next 10 years of crisis due to its failure to plan carefully today.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, it was a watershed moment for the Western world—a moment that evoked a sense of history, urgency, and existential struggle. After all, this was a return of the 20th century’s bogeyman attempting to redivide Europe and redraw the Iron Curtain. All these emotional triggers lent a romantic quality to Ukraine’s struggle against Russia that the Western world indulged in.

The policy response was parsed through these lenses of urgency and romanticism. Weapons were sent, young men traveled from afar to Ukraine’s front, and the militarization of a population of 41 million people was cheered as plans to fast-track the country into the European Union were made. And this only keeps dialing up. This month, the United States is sending drones, helicopters, and howitzers to shore up the defense of the Donbas while other allies prepare anti-aircraft missile launchers, artillery, and potentially even fighter jets to support Ukraine’s war effort.

It is an eerily similar throwback to the days when popular revolutions against former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned violent and policies to support the well-meaning revolutionaries were dictated by hopefulness, righteousness, and an urgency that lacked due care and planning. The effects of this, like in the Middle East and North Africa, could be that the West is sowing the seeds of the next 10 years of crisis due to its failure to plan carefully today.

Weapons, such as Javelin and Stinger missiles, are usually tightly regulated, with stringent end-use conditions and monitoring because of how powerful they can be.

Even before Russia had crossed the Rubicon, the Western world was sending Ukraine what it required to have any hope of resisting the impending cataclysm. Advanced weaponry, such as fabled anti-tank Javelin missiles and anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, were sent in troves, and stacked pallets of small arms and ammunition arrived by the plane load, along with armored cars, advanced radios, and everything needed to excel at modern warfare. The scale and speed of the airlift of weaponry to Ukraine is likely to be the largest in contemporary history.

It’s been governed by two imperatives, providing Ukrainians what they need to negate Russian technological advantages before it is too late (under an assumption that the Russian army would be more competent than it has proven itself to be). This logic is being refreshed as Ukraine struggles to repel Russia’s plan B: a mass invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region. Early Russian successes suggest Moscow is learning from the failures of February’s botched blitzkrieg, and the surrender of entire units in Mariupol indicate Ukraine’s resources are faltering. So, support is ramping up in both quantity and quality as the U.S. government and its allies prepare heavy weapons for transfer to Ukraine.

Although this logic is certainly valid, it is incomplete. Weapons, such as Javelin and Stinger missiles, are usually tightly regulated, with stringent end-use conditions and monitoring because of how devastatingly powerful they can be—as the Russians are now finding out. Even long-time U.S. ally France was embarrassed and investigated in 2019 when it was discovered to have been improperly deploying Javelins in its clandestine Libya operations.

Eastern Europe is an infamous font of weapons proliferation to the conflicts of the world, and Ukraine itself has such a bad track record that it strained previous NATO accession discussions.

Yet, Eastern Europe is an infamous font of weapons proliferation to the conflicts of the world, and Ukraine itself has such a bad track record that it strained previous NATO accession discussions. Aside from direct involvement in illicit arms trading, Ukraine and its neighbor Moldova were also highlighted in 2019 as important middle men in facilitating larger state-to-state weapons transfers, such as from Turkey or the United Arab Emirates to both sides of the Second Libyan Civil War in direct violation of a United Nations arms embargo.

So, by funneling billions of dollars worth of advanced armaments to a land well steeped in weapons proliferation and where regulation and oversight mechanisms will be damaged by the war, the Western world may have just toppled the initial domino that ends with tomorrow’s terrorist groups or other nonstate actors being able to source Javelins and Stingers once the dust has settled in Ukraine.

But the West hasn’t just sent its weaponry to war; it’s also sent its citizens. Although this differs from state-sanctioned arms transfers since individuals are largely making personal decisions to fight and privately funding their travel, Western states are doing little to stop or dissuade their citizens from going. The sight of scores of young men traveling abroad to fight for a righteous cause with little except for feeble statements to temper their enthusiasm is again unsettlingly reminiscent of the early days of the Libyan and Syrian revolutions.

By March 6, some 20,000 foreign fighters were making their way to Ukraine. This is a considerable number of fighters considering the over 10-year conflict in Syria attracted an estimated 40,000 people. And as Syria and Libya have shown, this could create significant legal- and security-related headaches in the future. Many of these fighters are inspired by nationalist narratives; some are even right-wing extremists, though Russian propaganda has exaggerated their numbers.

Ideologically inspired fighters of all stripes have a tendency to radicalize, and war is an experience that pollutes the sanity and morality of those who experience it. It will be hard to track the spread of these ex-combatants returning across Europe and the United States as well as their ability to bring small arms back with them. The return of right-wing extremists exacerbates this and could cause a compounding crisis as they use their conflict experience to train, recruit, and plan fresh violence. This will burden already strained state health and security services that will need to react to the phenomenon.

Moreover, it is a problem that will worsen exponentially the longer the war continues and Ukrainian society becomes more heavily armed and militarized. Europe should therefore be planning alongside Ukraine to help the Zelensky administration manage the politics of war and prevent the enduring militarization of its social and political life in a way that ensures that even if Russian President Vladimir Putin can’t win on the battlefield, he could succeed in killing any hope of a liberal, democratic Ukraine.

Although the policy responses to the invasion of Ukraine are understandable, a Pandora’s box of potential unintended consequences has now been opened. This means the West’s actions today could put the best European and U.S. weapons into extremists’ hands in the future, set up a new wave of domestic terrorism, or help found a radically militarized state in the heart of Eastern Europe.

Strategic and moral imperatives mean the West must support Ukraine. But Western leaders must do so with the wisdom that acknowledges a need to move just as purposefully toward developing the legal, monitoring, and supportive frameworks necessary to mitigate against a host of additional problems arms transfers could end up causing and thereby prevent today’s good intentions from leading to blowback tomorrow.

Tarek Megerisi is a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, specializing in politics, governance, and development in the Arab world. He has worked extensively on Libya's transition since 2012 with Libyan and international organizations. Twitter: @Tmegrisi

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