No, We Should Not Arm Ukraine

by Benjamin Studebaker

In a recent report titled Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do, the Brookings Institution in conjunction with the Atlantic Council and the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs advise NATO to drastically increase its arms commitment to Ukraine. The report has fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the conflict in Ukraine and has consequently given governments advice that is both irrelevant and terrible. Here’s why.

The fundamental assumption the report makes is that the conflict in Ukraine is a Putin-manufactured war of aggression by the Russians. The report implicitly compares Putin to Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Adolf Hitler:

The world has faced this kind of challenge before. History makes clear that the only way to stop such aggression from precipitating a regional or even worldwide conflagration is to deter and defend against it as early as possible and not to be fooled by protestations of innocent motives or lack of further ambitions.

This is the narrative that the western media has been running with. The trouble is that it’s a really, really false narrative that ignores many fundamental distinctions between the European balance of power immediately prior to the two World Wars and today. I wrote about this last March, when Hillary Clinton made a similar comparison. In every case in which an aggressive power attempts to completely dominate a region, leading to a “worldwide conflagration”, that aggressive power initiates its aggressive actions when it is clear that it is much stronger than the other great powers in its region. Consider for instance the European balance of power in 1940 (based on the relative share of wealth each country controlled):

As you can see, Germany is easily the strongest European country in 1940. When Germany and Italy went to war with the UK and France, the axis controlled 39% of European wealth while the allies controlled only 33%. This put the Germans in a strong position to prevail, and once France was occupied, they had an immense wealth advantage over Britain. Only a couple of fatal mistakes (invading the USSR and declaring war on the USA) prevented Germany from inflicting total defeats on both countries. Germany was very strong in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, and it is for that reason that it launched ambitious wars of conquest.

By contrast, contemporary Russia is very weak. Even if you exclude the United States, Russia is in no position to dominate Europe:

And once we put the Americans in, it’s indisputable that Russia is no threat to the European order as a whole:

And if even that doesn’t convince you, please remember that the United States, Germany, France, the UK, and Italy are all NATO members–along with a variety of other countries I didn’t include in the chart. So Russia is extremely weak relative to NATO and is in no position to invade any NATO member state. This is not Munich. Putin is not Hitler.

Now, Ukraine is not a NATO member state, and Russia most definitely does have a huge power advantage over Ukraine:

Russia v Ukraine BOP

But Russia is not intervening in Ukraine just because it has a power advantage and can do so–Russia has had a large power advantage over Ukraine since Ukraine became independent. Russia is intervening in Ukraine because Russia is afraid that Ukraine is going to become part of NATO, the EU, and other institutions that the Russians perceive to be threatening. Think about it. When we look at that chart showing the balance of power in Europe in 1940, we think “Wow, the Germans were really quite powerful in 1940, why didn’t the other European countries try harder during the 1930’s to contain Germany? Didn’t they see this coming?” The Russians look at the current balance of power, which shows that Russia is very weak compared to NATO, and they hear western politicians and media talk about how much the west would like to eliminate Putin’s regime and turn Russia into a liberal democracy. They see us as a potential threat to their system and way of life.

Now, we laugh at this thought. How could the Russians see us as a threat? We’re just trying to share freedom, democracy, and capitalism with them. We think these systems are great, and we want the Russian people to enjoy their benefits. But the Russians don’t see us this way. The Russians see liberal democracy as a hostile, imperial ideology. We see NATO and EU as expansion as a way to share prosperity and freedom with more people. For them, we’re the ones who look like Hitler with our slow, steady march eastward toward their borders. Even though the Russians frequently say that they do not want NATO or the EU to expand eastward, we continue this expansion anyway. Here’s NATO:

Here’s the EU:

We struggle to understand why Russia objects to the expansion of ideas we think are clearly and obviously beneficial. We think the Russians are fundamentally retrograde, that they’re harming their own interests by refusing to join the party. We see their actions as aggressive and threatening. It is difficult for many of us to see that they perceive us the very way we perceive them.  The Russians have intervened in Ukraine because they believe this is the only way to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU, from embracing liberal democracy. They believe each and every additional liberal democracy on their borders compounds the threat that NATO and the EU pose to them.

The report freely concedes that NATO arms will not make it possible for Ukraine to defeat Russia militarily, but asserts that they will increase the cost of Russia’s intervention until Russia is deterred and retreats:

Even with enormous support from the West, the Ukrainian army will not be able to defeat a determined attack by the Russian military. This point is well understood in Kyiv. The more appropriate goal of Western military assistance should be to give the Ukrainian military additional defense capabilities that would allow it to inflict significant costs on the Russian military, should the Russians launch new offensive operations, sufficient enough that Moscow will be deterred from further aggression.

The assumption here is that Russia is an aggressive power and that Ukraine is some sort of casual Russian ambition. This is not at all how the Russians view Ukraine. The Russians see Ukraine as a bulwark against NATO and EU expansion. They see the loss of Ukraine to the west as an existential threat, something that must be stopped at extraordinarily high costs. For Putin, intervening in Ukraine isn’t something that’s just done for glory or out of avarice, it is done because Putin really thinks that if he doesn’t do it he will expose himself, his regime, and the Russian way of life to unacceptable threats.

Over the past year, we’ve acquired conclusive evidence that this is the case. The Russian economy is getting absolutely thrashed by western sanctions. GDP growth is negligible:

Inflation has soared:

But Putin’s approval rating, which took off when he began intervening in Ukraine, has remained ridiculously high all year:

Putin Approval 2015


Why do the Russians still approve of Putin when their economy is reeling? Because they don’t see Ukraine as an optional foreign adventure, some sort of aggressive, imperialist clown job. They see it as a core Russian security interest that must be defended, whatever the cost. Even if vast sacrifices must be made. The Russians are long accustomed to thinking of the west as a threatening, invasive force–Napoleon and Hitler both invaded Russia from the west, and the Russians don’t see the end of the Cold War as the end of conflict or as some kind of victory for peace and freedom. They see it as a humiliating defeat for Russia and they think the world is much more dangerous for them now than it was in 1985, when they had the whole Warsaw Pact between them and NATO’s tanks.

They aren’t going to back down until they have ensured that Ukraine will not become part of NATO or the EU. If this means destroying Ukraine, they will destroy Ukraine. If this means overcoming Ukrainians armed with NATO weapons, they will do it. NATO weapons would only serve to confirm in the minds of the Russians the threat they perceive. They would make the conflict longer and bloodier, but they will not change the result. Unless NATO is willing to invade Ukraine itself to kick the Russians out (and it isn’t), Russia is going to beat Ukraine and achieve a settlement it can live with. NATO’s best move is to immediately begin negotiating a permanent settlement to the crisis that preserves Ukraine as a neutral buffer state between Russia and the west. Otherwise, more lives will be lost to no effect.

To their credit, the German government has seen the wisdom in this from the start, and has continually been negotiating with the Russians. The rest of NATO should do the same.

And in the meantime, there’s a larger lesson to be learned here–to understand security issues, it is important that we be able to empathize with our adversaries, to put ourselves in their shoes and think about the situation from their perspective. The think tanks that participated in creating this report have utterly failed to do this. Their work is myopic and reflects strong western biases that make it impossible for them to understand what motivates the Russians. And without an understanding of Russian motivations, predicting Russia’s actions becomes impossible. At one point in the report, the writers claim that Russia’s recent actions were “unthinkable”:

Few analysts at the end of 2013 would have considered a Russian military seizure of Crimea or invasion of the Donbas “thinkable.”

They were only unthinkable to those who could not think like Russians. And if you can’t think like a Russian, why are you giving the world’s governments advice on how to handle Russians?