Peace in Ukraine march, 2014. Photo by Elvert Barnes.
When you see a bully using his muscle against someone much smaller and weaker than he is, the right thing to do is intervene. If you are big enough yourself, the bully will probably back off – momentarily.
But unless you actually raise the cost of aggression, you have only delayed it, not stopped it.
Sovereign nations are not children in a school yard. But the larger principle holds true, even in international relations. Aggression stops when you raise its cost beyond what the aggressor finds acceptable, and not before. Just ask the people of Ukraine.
Ever since Russia invaded the country in 2014, using an internal dispute as a pretext to seize Crimea, the rest of the world has tried a variety of approaches to check Russian aggression. The United States and the European Union have variously tried publicly criticizing Russia’s actions, facilitating ceasefire agreements and imposing sanctions. And yet violence continues across eastern Ukraine.
Until now, the United States has supported the Kiev government with only nonlethal equipment and training, in an attempt to avoid escalating the conflict. According to The Wall Street Journal, that strategy may soon change. The Pentagon and the State Department have developed a new plan that involves supplying Ukraine with anti-tank missiles and other “defensive” arms, and at this writing were seeking the president’s approval to move forward, though officials told the Journal that the process may take months. President Trump’s position is not yet known, though Defense Secretary James Mattis has reportedly endorsed the plan.
The last time the U.S. considered providing weapons to Ukraine’s government, under the Obama administration, it faced vocal criticism from a variety of allied nations. But after several years of fighting, nations including the United Kingdom and Canada may be ready to shift their stance, even if Germany and France are likely to continue to push for alternative methods to resolve the conflict.
Whether Western nations are willing to admit it or not, we have seen that other methods don’t work. Russia is happy to ignore criticisms and ceasefire agreements, and has done both for years. Sanctions provoke loud complaints, but no changes in the behavior that triggered them. Providing Ukraine with the means to defend itself is the only way to deter Russian aggression for good.
The United Nations estimates that 10,000 people have died since the conflict began, many of them civilians. An additional 2 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the fighting. Violations of the ceasefire have increased, and the Russians are not hesitating to provide lethal weapons to the rebel forces they support. The conflict is already escalating, regardless of whether we decide to offer Ukraine the means of solid defense or not.
As the Journal’s editorial board observed, Russia could occupy all of Ukraine outright if Putin wished to do so. It hasn’t done so because the perceived military – and political – costs to its president are too high. Raising that cost still higher may be the only way to cut off the Russian arms – and, though its government denies it, Russian soldiers – that currently support the separatists.
The best way to help the people of Ukraine is to make sure that Moscow finds the cost of continuing its proxy war in the country too steep. We should take steps to raise that cost as soon as we can.