Is the week-old cease-fire between Russia and Ukraine dead? Depends on whom you ask.
The State Department insists it’s not. Top Republican lawmakers say it is. Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers who were driven out of the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve by Moscow-backed rebels on Wednesday — a major strategic loss for Kiev — would tell you a cease-fire never even began.
The disintegrating peace deal turns attention to potential U.S. action in the region that would be bigger than sanctions: If the United States decides to provide defensive weapons to Ukrainian troops, what would Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move be?
U.S. officials had hoped that the cease-fire brokered in Minsk, the second of its kind since the Ukraine conflict began last spring, would bring all sides closer to a diplomatic solution. The agreement had sidelined news that President Obama was considering sending defensive weapons to the Ukrainian military in its fight against pro-Russian separatists, a major step in a U.S. policy on Russia so far defined by economic sanctions and nonlethal aid, like body armor, night-vision goggles and sleeping mats. But now, lawmakers are getting antsy, and the administration can’t buy much more time to “look at all options.”
Republicans Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called the cease-fire a “failure” and say “it is long past time” to arm Ukraine. “Western leaders say there is no military solution to the conflict in Ukraine,” they said in a joint statement on Tuesday. “[Russian President] Vladimir Putin clearly does not think so.”
McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, leads a bipartisan coalition of senators who support arming Ukraine. Ashton Carter, the new defense secretary, has signaled his support for such action. In the House, about 30 members on both sides want the administration to provide lethal assistance. President Obama said he has not yet decided whether to provide military assistance, but legislation that would allow that at least stands a chance at gaining some momentum this Congress.
So how would Russia respond if McCain got his way?
According to Putin himself, nothing would change. During a trip to Budapest on Tuesday, Putin said that “according to our information, these weapons are already being delivered.” New weapons could increase the number of casualties in the conflict, he said, but “the result will be the same as it is today. This is unavoidable.”
Putin, however, has a tendency to say one thing when he means another. And former senior U.S. officials are less sure of how he’ll react.
“I hope it is causing [Putin] to reassess the costs of the continued hybrid war he’s carrying out in Ukraine,” says Steven Pifer, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Arms Control Initiative and a former ambassador to Ukraine. Still, he says, “it’s unclear” how Russia will react.
“I don’t know how he will react other than to say that I think it will have some influence on his calculation,” says Ivo Daalder, the ambassador to NATO during Obama’s first term. “It won’t be decisive, but it will have some influence on his calculation.”
Pifer and Daalder, along with several other officials, sparked the Ukraine arms debate earlier this month when they released a report urging the U.S. to send $3 billion in lethal aid.
“Ukraine is an independent country that is being invaded. It has asked for defensive weapons, and we provide weapons to many countries around the world,” Daalder says. “So why shouldn’t we do it to this country?”
The point of sending arms to Ukraine is not to give the military there a fighting chance against a Moscow-backed separatist movement. The Ukrainian military — plagued by poor leadership, low funds, and aging equipment — is by no means a professional army. Even the soldiers themselves know that. The point is to give Ukrainian authorities enough ammunition to ratchet up “costs” for Moscow in the form of Russian casualties. Put simply, sending lethal aid would allow the Ukrainians to kill more rebels than they could without any outside help. The majority of Russians genuinely don’t want to go to war with Ukraine, and news of Russian casualties could hurt Putin’s favorability. This would, U.S. officials hope, lead Putin to back down. As Jeremy Shapiro, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings, wrote earlier this month, Moscow “supposedly fears the ire of Russian mothers whose devotion to the well-being of their soldier-sons can move political mountains even in authoritarian Russia.”
But the ire of Russian mothers — and Putin’s sensitivity to casualties — goes only so far. “Unfortunately, one of the few more powerful forces than mothers in Russian politics is anti-Americanism,” Shapiro writes. More U.S. involvement in Ukraine would give the Kremlin another piece of propaganda in its information war against the West. And by putting American weapons in Ukrainian hands, the U.S. risks wading into a proxy war with Russia — one that the Wilson Center’s Michael Kofman calls “an Afghanistan-like approach.” After all, arming Syrian opposition forces didn’t change Bashar al-Assad’s calculus, nor did arming Libyan rebels help stabilize a post-Qaddafi climate, Kofman argues.
The West’s worst-case scenario is that Putin uses U.S. military support as an excuse to launch a full-scale war in Ukraine, and Ukraine loses control of more territory while dragging the U.S. deeper in in its involvement. But the bottom line is that the U.S. can’t confidently say exactly what would happen.
“It’s unpredictable. That’s the problem,” says Angela Stent, the director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies. “And of course, that’s part of the Russian strategy, is to keep us guessing. But we just don’t know what the Russian reaction will be.”