Editorial Board

Why Arming Ukraine Will Backfire

Arming Ukraine risks misleading the country into believing the U.S. will do what it takes to defeat Russia. And it risks encouraging Russia to expand the war.

Stuck between a rock, a hard place and nuclear-armed Russia.

Photographer: Manu Brabo/AFP/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin has restarted his war against Ukraine, and the U.S. and Europe are unsure how to respond. While Europe has apparently decided that no toughening of economic sanctions is called for, some in Washington are calling for equipping Ukraine with lethal weapons.

Yet arming Ukraine is likely to backfire: It risks misleading the country -- which is now pressing to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- into believing the U.S. will do what it takes to defeat Russia. It also risks encouraging Russia to expand the war, because it knows the U.S. and its NATO allies don’t have sufficient interests at stake to go all the way. The parallels often drawn with the war in Bosnia, where a U.S. arms and training program eventually turned the war and forced a peace, aren’t helpful: Serbia was a military minnow next to Putin’s nuclear-armed Russia.

The bottom line remains that the U.S. and its allies aren't willing to fight Russia over Ukraine, and Ukraine's interests aren't served by escalating a fight that it's almost certain to lose. Moreover, by the time the U.S. delivered the weapons and training needed to make a difference on the battlefield, Putin would already have taken the territory he wants to hold. The sooner Ukraine's leaders understand this, the better.

With Europe’s resolve to impose additional sanctions fading, it’s natural to want to find other tools to deter the Russian president. After all, Ukraine is in a terrible position. No doubt this is why a group of former U.S. security officials are calling for a $3 billion program to provide the Ukrainians with American drones, anti-tank weapons and other defensive lethal equipment. The goal would be not to defeat the Russians, the former officials say, but to deter Putin by raising the cost of attack.

They "vehemently" reject the concern that putting U.S. arms into Ukrainian hands would simply goad Putin into expanding the conflict -- on the grounds that he has needed no provocation to attack Ukraine until now. But while Putin has certainly acted aggressively to this point, that hardly means U.S. military intervention wouldn't push him to do more. Indeed, it's hard to see how the entrance of American military equipment and advisers could do anything but goad Putin to expand the conflict.

Ukraine is already buying weapons from other countries in the region, but if anything can stir the Russian people to accept an open war with fellow Slavs in Ukraine (so far they don't), it is the idea that they would be fighting not Ukrainians but NATO, the military alliance they have grown up believing was bent on their destruction. A U.S. intention to provide only "defensive" weapons may be an important distinction in the U.S., but it's meaningless in Russia. Anti-tank weapons and even radar that allows Ukraine's military to locate and strike enemy artillery positions will still kill Russian soldiers. They would be perceived by ordinary Russians as offensive weapons, even without help from Russia's inflammatory propaganda machine.

These are large risks that can't be waved away. If the goal of military assistance is not to defeat Russia and its proxies, but to pressure Putin, then the weapons would have to be accompanied by a plausible diplomatic track. Yet the law that President Petro Poroshenko signed in December to end Ukraine's neutral status and set a course for membership in NATO has removed the minimum requirement for diplomacy leading to peace.

The U.S. and its allies should make clear to Ukraine that its NATO ambitions are unrealistic. Right or wrong, the alliance doesn’t want Ukraine, and Russia sees its membership in NATO as a red line. So long as that’s the case, the U.S. should stay out of eastern Ukraine.

    --Editors: Marc Champion, Mary Duenwald.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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