What Would Vladimir Putin Do if John McCain Gets His Way on Ukraine?

No one really knows for sure. And that’s a problem.

Ukrainian soldiers riding a tank arrive near Artemivsk after leaving the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve in the Donetsk region on February 18, 2015. 
National Journal
Feb. 19, 2015, midnight

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.”

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