U.S. Arms to Ukraine: Tilting the Balance or Fanning the Flames?

Ukraine’s 10-month conflict may be entering a new phase.

Eight former top U.S. officials urged President Barack Obama in a report Monday to authorize delivery of $1 billion of weapons to the Ukrainian government this year and for the next two years to help it fight pro-Russian rebels in its Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who have been advancing in recent weeks.

Officials in Washington say they’re examining all options. U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, favors “considering practical means of support,” Pentagon spokesman Gregory Hicks said. Obama remains unconvinced, according to one official familiar with his thinking. Germany won’t support weapons shipments to the Ukrainian government, Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Budapest on Monday.

Here’s a list of frequently asked questions about possible scenarios for the 10-month conflict:

What is Ukraine requesting?

Ukraine sent a request for lethal weapons to foreign governments last year, said Tetyana Popova, an adviser to Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak. Ministry officials and military leaders are discussing the issue with their U.S. counterparts this week, she said.

The government in Kiev is asking for as much as $3 billion in financial aid and “nonlethal weapons,” munitions and radar equipment, Deputy Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said Jan. 29. Ukraine has asked the White House as well as the U.K., France and Germany for military training and equipment, including armored vehicles, access to surveillance drones and radar to warn of artillery attacks, Prystaiko said. The U.S. has already supplied Ukraine with light-weight counter-mortar radar systems.

Ukraine can’t expect modern U.S. weapons because of concern that they might be seized and reverse-engineered by Russia, according to Mykhaylo Samus, head of the Prague office of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies.

How does this compare with the rebels’ equipment?

Ukraine says the separatists are backed by thousands of Russian troops and their equipment includes dozens of tanks, armored personnel carriers, sophisticated multiple-rocket launcher systems, heavy artillery and self-propelled howitzers. On Jan. 27, the Ukrainian army said rebel assets it destroyed included airplanes and helicopters. According to the government in Kiev, the rebels’ tanks and heavy weapons are very modern, some newly developed and being tested by Russia in Ukraine. The Kremlin denies any military involvement.

How much would the additional weapons tilt the balance?

The supply of U.S. defensive weapons to Ukraine would blunt the rebel offensive in the immediate future, according to Anton Lavrov, a Russian military analyst. “It wouldn’t give the Ukrainians a decisive advantage, but it would help to stabilize the situation.” he said.

The Ukrainian army’s biggest needs are systems that would help increase the targeting accuracy of its existing weapons, according to Samus at the CACDS in Prague.

How would the rebels respond to such a development?

The U.S. supplying weapons to Ukraine would escalate the conflict, Denis Pushilin, a representative of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said in Moscow on Monday. Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the DPR, on Monday said he’s ordered full mobilization to boost the number of rebel fighters to as many as 100,000 people against what he said was a military buildup by government forces.

What would be Russia’s likely reaction?

Russia would be likely to respond by upping the ante and increasing the scale of its military intervention in Ukraine, according to Nikolai Petrov, a professor of political science at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “Russia is not ready to back down and it can match the U.S.,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday accused Ukraine of opting for a purely military solution to the conflict, with U.S. support, and urged direct talks between Kiev and the rebels.

A U.S. decision to arm Ukraine could “trigger further escalation of the conflict,” Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the international committee of Russia’s Federation Council, said Monday, according to the state-run Tass news service.

What’s next? How soon can a decision be made?

While the issue may come up at a meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers in Brussels on Thursday, no decision is likely. The 28 allies have different views, as Merkel’s objections show. The hardware is owned and operated by national militaries, not by NATO as an organization.

One question is whether the Ukrainian military has the know-how to operate any equipment it gets. If Ukraine’s troops need on-site battlefield training, that could put western troops in the line of fire.

Kerry is visiting Ukraine on Thursday. Many leaders and top diplomats will be at a Feb. 6-8 security conference in Munich that will focus on Ukraine, while Merkel will visit the U.S. and Canada Feb. 8-10.

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