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:
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:
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?
Russians are spending $80 billions per year on military spending. Ridiculous amount. France along spends $60 billions. The US more than $610 billion. Where is the threat?
Agreed, a lot of people don’t understand just how much weaker relative to NATO Russia is now compared with decades past. There’s a definite tendency toward threat inflation.
I concede that the Russia is not a “21st century Germany” in the sense that it does not command even nearly the amount of power Germany did in the 1940s. At the same time, it’s doubtful that its foreign policy is mainly driven by strategic interests. It’s systemic quality is best described Marcel H. van Herpen, who described Putinism as “shares with “classical” fascism its ultra-nationalism and its ideas of national rebirth and imperialist revisionism” He also concludes, “Putinism is a totally new political formation that challenged existing political models,” “It is a multi-layered political formation which combines elements of Bonapartism, ‘classical’ inter-war fascism (especially of the Mussolinian variant) and modern Berlusconist populism.” Interestingly his latest book came out around the same time as the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and predicted Russia’s expansion into former-USSR territories. Another indication of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is the Russo-Georgian war which ended with Russia’s occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Even if Ukraine and Georgia were left as buffer states, Russia’s large power advantage leaves the possibility of a infringement of Ukrainian or Georgian territorial integrity by the Russian government. Also, the issue of self-determination is another thorn. Even if NATO agrees to a hands-off policy in these two countries, the majority of Ukrainians and Georgians favor NATO ascension.Even if the EU an NATO denied Ukrainian integration, integration is certainly possible in other ways. If there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s unlikely that Ukraine will quietly forget the conflict.
Putin is not a unique figure–there are lots of other leaders who have combined similar elements who have no posed any substantive threat to NATO or to world order more broadly–take Francisco Franco, a genuine interwar fascist who initiated no large scale European wars, or Mussolini himself, who attempted to profiteer from Hitler’s wars even as he recognized that Italy lacked the strength to challenge Britain or France alone. What history shows is that while these leaders may use a personality cult, national rebirth, or fascist propaganda to generate popular support, they will not create global conflicts they have no chance of winning. Putin did not annex Georgia in 2008 (South Ossetia and Abkhazia were already autonomous regions–the war preserved that status) and he did not intervene in Ukraine until there was a serious threat that Ukraine would defect to the west. The link between right authoritarianism and aggressive war only holds when the right authoritarian state has a substantial power advantage over its regional peers. NATO and the EU are free to deny Ukraine and Georgia admission–countries cannot force international organizations to accept them as members.
In the immortal words of Robert Burns:
O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
An excellent article. Something else which I think isn’t sufficiently appreciated in the west is how the recent change of government in Ukraine is perceived by the Russians. Presented by the Western press as a ‘popular revolution’, it could also, and perhaps more accurately, be described as a ‘regime change’ in which America and the EC engineered the ousting of a democratically elected president in favour of people they find more convenient. This perhaps goes a long way to explaining the perceived threat coming from the west.
Thank you–I absolutely agree that the Russians perceived the revolution/regime change in Ukraine very differently from the west and that this contributed to the Russian reaction. What we take to be self-evident progress is not always viewed that way in other parts of the world.
…and don’t forget to look at the comments underneath!
What’s really horrifying about that piece is that Timothy Garton Ash seems to believe that the west was wrong to cut a deal with the USSR at Yalta. The alternative to recognizing Soviet influence in the eastern bloc was a long war of extraordinary awfulness that would likely have turned Europe into a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The flippancy with which TGA supports that war makes me shudder.
“Others want nuclear weapons not to freeze the status quo, but to change it. Russia has started to wield nuclear threats as an offensive weapon in its strategy of intimidation. Its military exercises routinely stage dummy nuclear attacks on such capitals as Warsaw and Stockholm. Mr Putin’s speeches contain veiled nuclear threats. Dmitry Kiselev, one of the Kremlin’s mouthpieces, has declared with relish that Russian nuclear forces could turn America into “radioactive ash”.
Just rhetoric, you may say. But the murder of Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, on the Kremlin’s doorstep on February 27th was only the latest sign that Mr Putin’s Russia is heading into the geopolitical badlands (see article). Resentful, nationalistic and violent, it wants to rewrite the Western norms that underpin the status quo. First in Georgia and now in Ukraine, Russia has shown it will escalate to extremes to assert its hold over its neighbours and convince the West that intervention is pointless. Even if Mr Putin is bluffing about nuclear weapons (and there is no reason to think he is), any nationalist leader who comes after him could be even more dangerous.”
I think this is a fundamental misreading of what Russia is trying to do with its bellicose nuclear language. Russia does not actually intend to carry out these threats–the rhetoric is intended to galvanize the home audience. Think through it logically–if Russia were to actually use nuclear weapons offensively, it would trigger a nuclear war with the United States resulting in mutual annihilation. No country in history has used nuclear weapons against another nuclear-armed state. It’s a deeply stupid and flawed strategy. Putin is not stupid, his threats are not credible.
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I have visited Ukraine twice, first time in 1998 and more recently in 2010. Ukraine is a deeply divided nation (*), and it needs our support. If we provide arms it will not only help Ukraine to deter Russia, but should bolster the homeland security which by far is a weakest point.
(*) As far as I could gauge, more than 30% of population are native speakers of a dialect that is very close to Russian, meanwhile neither Russian nor that ‘Eastern Ukrainian’ dialect do have status of a state language, which is not inclusive and hence inherently destabilising. We have examples of civilised countries like Norway, Canada, Belgium, Ireland etc. that successfully implemented bilingual policies. Irish example is particularly relevant since it is the same nation, and due to historic reasons (admittedly rather unfortunate) urban population of which adopted English as their main tongue. Secondly, a large chunk of Western Ukraine was not a part of Russian Empire at the time when Helsinki and Warsaw were. So these guys are really unhappy with them still being under Russian ‘patronage’, and for that reason they are utmost nationalistic, yet so noninclusive and intolerant that stimulates rise of local fascist-styled organisations, which does not help national unity and re-conciliation. Thirdly, Crimea have been taken over and over by so many nations, it should be declared terra nullius and fall directly under UN jurisdiction;-) In all honesty it should be just independent. Finally, I’m more than sure that when Ukrainians kicked out their thug president, they were so excited that someone has dialed in Putin and said – “oi, mate, look your bloody base in Sevastopol, out! now! I mean it”. And before anyone had a chance to be diplomatic, Putin annexed the peninsula out of fear he’s gonna lose his entire black sea fleet in no time and with no compensation what so ever. Overall utter stupidity and negligence by all sides to the conflict. Mess.
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