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Three Charts Explain Why Arming Ukraine Is a Bad Idea

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Three charts in the latest Military Balance, an annual compendium of military spending and capabilities released today, lend some much-needed realism to the ongoing debate over whether the U.S. should become directly involved in arming Ukraine.

The first graphic from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies' yearly military guide shows the enormous disparity between the amount Russia spent in 2014 on its military, compared to its former Soviet neighbors (including Ukraine):

Russia and Eurasia regional defense spending
Source: IISS Military Balance 2015

The second provides a similar picture of comparative defense spending, only this time worldwide. In this one, Russia's military spending is as dwarfed by that of the U.S. as Ukraine's was by Russia's:

Comparative defense statistics.
Source: IISS Military Balance 2015

The third chart shows where defense expenditure is expanding and contracting. Saudi Arabia, China and Russia dominate the expansion; the U.S. and Europe dominate the contraction:

Source: IISS Military Balance 2015

The disparities shown here in many ways explain why we have, despite the end of the Cold War, ended up with a series of wars on Russia's borders. The country, still struggling to get used to its lost empire, is surrounded by what amounts to a military vacuum. Since it began modernizing its own military in earnest in 2008, the disparity between Russian capabilities and those of its neighbors has become extreme.

So it's no wonder Ukraine's forces collapsed last August, as soon as Russia fed more of its trained troops, tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft batteries and reconnaissance equipment into the fight. Nor is it a surprise that Russia was able to take Crimea, where it had a huge military presence on leased bases, without a fight.

Just as understandable is the hope of Ukrainians -- and before them, in 2008, Georgians -- that their new friends in the West can help them redress this imbalance. The conventional forces of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members are together capable defeating Russians on a battle field. That's changing as Russia arms itself, while the West disarms (see the third chart). But only when it comes to nuclear weapons does Russia remain a strategic equal.

The debate about whether to arm Ukraine has been heated, with extremely smart and informed people taking opposite sides. It is not a simple argument, but at the crux is a single judgment: Do you believe that Russia would simply escalate and, as Brigadier Ben Barry put it at today's Military Balance launch, "overmatch" whatever the U.S. supplies? Or do you believe Russia would be deterred from going further, knowing that the costs of trying to subdue Ukraine to Russian control would simply be too high?

The answer depends on an assessment of President Vladimir Putin's determination to win in Ukraine, and of the willingness of ordinary Russians to back him through a war. But capabilities also matter greatly in that assessment. So how much depth does Putin have in his conventional forces to be able to "overmatch" whatever anti-tank and other defensive weapons the U.S can throw at him?

Just to take one metric, Russia has about 2,800 main battle tanks, slightly more than the U.S. Putin's big national procurement program is due to deliver a total of more than 2,300 new tanks between 2011 and 2020. The program has focused more on Russia's nuclear and air forces, so the new tanks don't start arriving until this year. Still, the upshot is that he has more than enough tanks to send to Ukraine, and plenty of new model replacements in the pipeline for any older ones that are lost.

Russia's professional military of about 240,000 troops can't stretch to fight a war on multiple fronts, and in that sense remains weak relative to the U.S. But it has more than enough troops to deal with a single front in eastern Ukraine. The same goes for Russia's more than 2,500 tactical aircraft.

To bring all of that force to bear, however, Putin needs to declare to his own people that Russia as a nation is at war, rather than pretend that any Russia troops fighting in Ukraine are irregular volunteers. He hasn't been able to do that until now, because Russians don't really want to go to war against Ukrainians, even if they strongly sympathize with the rebels in mainly Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk.

So to reframe the question on arming Ukraine: Knowing the vast military superiority he enjoys, would Putin use an open commitment by the U.S. to send weapons and trainers to Ukraine as a pretext to say that Russia's vital interests are under threat from NATO, and launch an open and expanded invasion? Or would he back down from a much weaker neighbor?

Maybe everything Putin has done to date has been a bluff and he would hold back. But I find that hard to hope for. Putin knows about the huge military advantage he has over Ukraine, and the logistical one he has over the U.S. in bringing materiel and the trained soldiers to a battlefield just over the border. He would surely be tempted to escalate.

Which leads to the second part of any calculation on the arms question: Is the U.S. interest in Ukraine strong enough that it would be ready to counter such a Russian response? Because if it didn't, the net result of arming Ukraine would be a much larger loss of the country's territory.

The U.S. does have a strong interest in maintaining a freer Europe and in sustaining U.S. credibility (which is directly at risk in Ukraine because of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. guaranteed Ukraine's security in exchange for giving up its nuclear arsenal).

We already know the answer to the question, though. NATO has been highly reluctant to encourage Ukraine's hopes for joining the alliance in recent years, precisely because the current members knew the country would bring with it a high risk of war with Russia. In other words, there is no appetite to use the strength evident in the second chart, to reverse the Russia's advantage over Ukraine in the first. So long as that is the case, neither the U.S. nor Europe should pretend otherwise.

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:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net