The aftermath of an airstrike. This time, in Ukraine.

Photographer: Stanislav Krasilnikov/AFP/Getty Images

First Weapons, Then What for Ukraine?

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Should the U.S. arm Ukraine for its fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin? Before you say “Duh,” consider this: Arms shipments alone are almost never enough to enable a smaller, weaker actor to defeat a big-time power. If the U.S. commits itself to sending arms to Ukraine, it’s signing up for more than military aid. When Ukraine needs more help, America’s credibility will be on the line -- and pressure will be great to escalate even to the point of air support.

On the surface, this analysis might seem extreme. Right now, nobody on the American political spectrum, not even John McCain, thinks the U.S. should be prepared to fight an air war with Russia. That this idea is almost unthinkable, however, is a good reason to play out the various scenarios associated with sending arms to Ukraine.

Cool War

Begin with the most basic question: Can arms shipments alone enable Ukraine to fight off Russian military encroachments? To answer that question, ask yourself another: Can you think of any examples in which arms alone were enough for a weaker actor to stave off continued attacks from a much bigger neighbor?

During the Cold War, such arms shipments were commonplace, and used by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union as tools to contain each other and expand mutual spheres of influence. For the most part, however, arms didn’t suffice to resolve conflicts.

In Central America, support from both sides led to stalemates punctuated by occasional moments in which one side would get the upper hand. If you ask Guatemalans, Salvadorans or Nicaraguans about the influence of outside weapons, you’re unlikely to get a very enthusiastic answer.

In both northwest and southeast Asia, the provision of arms led to a commitment of outside ground forces. The Korean War pitted Americans against Chinese -- alongside the hundreds of thousands of North and South Koreans who fought and died. In Vietnam, the Soviets managed to send only advisers. But the U.S. sent some 2 1/2 million troops.

One salient Cold War example when arms alone are thought to have worked was U.S. military support for the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation. But given that every empire has failed to hold Afghanistan, from Alexander’s Greece to the British and now the Americans, it may be time to re-evaluate the confident assumption that surface-to-air Stingers were really what defeated the Soviets. The Stingers may have speeded up the process. But the difficulties of suppressing the Afghan population for an extended period of time were surely determinative.

Since the end of the Cold War, the limitations of an “arms alone” policy haven’t disappeared. Libyan rebels got arms galore -- and couldn’t defeat Muammar Qaddafi until Western air support was added. Syrian freedom fighters have received weapons almost from the start, but even with air support they haven’t succeeded in defeating Bashar al-Assad.

Admittedly, Ukraine may be in a better position to take advantage of U.S. weapons than some of these other actors. Ukraine is a sovereign state with its own military, albeit overmatched by the Russians. It’s conceivable that, with greater resources in hand, Ukraine could hold the line against the Russians.

But it seems highly unlikely that, even with U.S. military resources, Ukraine could fundamentally change Russia’s strategic calculus and deter Putin from further incursions. The pith of Putin’s Ukraine strategy has been to keep up slow and sporadic military pressure, reminding Ukraine both that much of its population is Russian speaking and sympathetic to Moscow, and that Moscow is big and strong and not going away. The results haven’t backfired against Putin domestically, even though the Russian economy has suffered from the combination of drastically lower oil prices and Western sanctions. It’s hard to see Putin showing weakness and backing down just because Ukraine’s arsenal gets bigger.

That requires us to ask what would happen if a U.S.-armed Ukraine continued to lose ground to Russia. At present, the U.S. is paying a modest price for Putin’s gains: decreased credibility with regional or global actors who believe they have received U.S. security guarantees akin to those given to Ukraine in the Budapest memorandum of 1994. But if the U.S. actively aids Ukraine, and the aid seems inadequate, the costs of U.S. failure will go up. President Barack Obama will be seen to have tried and failed to affect the balance of power in central Europe. This would substantially weaken U.S. prestige and capabilities, much as the U.S. has been weakened by its failure thus far to degrade or eliminate the movement of Islamic State.

Under circumstances of continued failure, Obama -- or the next president, be it a Clinton or a Bush or someone else -- would come under enormous pressure to give further assistance to Ukraine. Once military aid failed, the natural next step would be air support.

The prospect of direct war against Russian troops would be off-putting, to say the least. But U.S. prestige would be on the line. Hawks would be sure to say that inaction would be capitulation, and the specter of Neville Chamberlain would walk again.

The possibility that arms shipments might lead to greater military escalation isn’t a definitive reason not to stand up to Putin, of course. Russia’s Ukraine encroachment may already be a definitive test of American strength in the Cool War era, in which case strong resistance is crucial. The key is to be honest and clear-eyed about where arms shipments may lead -- and not to pretend that there’s a cheap or easy way to confront aggressive, expansionist power.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net