ABC The Drum
If the US provided deadly arms to the Ukrainian army it could simply escalate the crisis with Russia and prove counterproductive. Instead, diplomatic options haven't been exhausted yet, writes
This week has been described as perhaps the most decisive since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine as Germany and France push for the "last chance" peace deal between Russia and Ukraine.
Yet, while the EU leaders appear to be playing the good cop, the United States has assumed the bad cop role after president Barack Obama stated that his administration is exploring the option of arming the Ukrainian army.
Tellingly, among the authors of the report are Bill Clinton's deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott; Ivo Daalder, who served in the National Security Council as the coordinator for US policy towards Bosnia–Herzegovina during the Yugoslav wars; and Michele Flournoy, who was Clinton's deputy assistant secretary of defence for strategy (and who has been tipped as the first female secretary of defence if Hillary Clinton becomes the president).
In essence, this group of authors argues that the US and NATO members should provide lethal military assistance to Ukraine because such an approach would raise the costs of fighting for Russia. They claim that the increased number of Russian soldiers killed in fighting would force Vladimir Putin to retreat. This is a strategy that proved successful two decades ago when some of these authors worked as officials in the Clinton administration and when Slobodan Milosevic was coerced into signing the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that effectively ended the wars in Croatia and Bosnia–Herzegovina.
Putin's modus operandi certainly has some parallels with Milosevic's. His imperialist goals of creating Novorossia (in Milosevic's case this was the Greater Serbia) have been presented under the guise of protecting ethnic kin in Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea and support for insurgency in Donbas region has been further justified by tapping into historic myths and grievances from WWII. Finally, manufacturing conspiracy theories about the "true intentions" of the West expanded the propagandist narrative for both of these leaders.
Yet, in finding a response to Russian-led aggression in Ukraine, it becomes very clear that Putin cannot be dealt with in the same way as with Milosevic. The issue is in scale. Students of wars in the Western Balkans know that providing military training and turning a blind eye to arming local proxies might have worked in Croatia. However, it was still a lengthy exercise (the war in Croatia lasted from 1991 to 1995) and it was targeted against the Serb rebels in the self-proclaimed Krajina region who did not have as strong of a support that Russia provides for the militias in the Donbas region.
The rebels in Ukraine have the backing of the world's third largest military power, whose military expenditure is eclipsed only by that of the US and China. The advocates of arming the Ukrainian forces are aware of this; however, they still stress it is the only option if the government forces were to stand a chance in taking control over the seized territory.
Second, the potential for escalation of violence that could follow if the Ukrainian army receives the quoted $3 billion in US military assistance over the next three years has not been discussed adequately. Wise policymaking is contingent on sound cost-benefit analysis of each proposed policy option, and selecting the course that will ultimately yield the most benefit (and not only tick the box of urgent and strong response).
Putin is an authoritarian leader who has created the narrative of fighting the West and his latest policy cues do not suggest he is willing to go without a fight. Thus, the escalation of violence should be taken as close to certain, while the costs of protracted open conflict against a nuclear power must not be taken lightly.
Lastly, from the outset of the crisis, the EU and US have rightly taken the path of diplomatic pressure against Russia and combined it with implementing extensive sanctions. This option has not been exhausted — the warring parties are still willing to negotiate and harsher sanctions are at disposal to be used as bargaining chips.
The West has a common goal and it is imperative that it finds a way to act in unison despite the current divergence in views on the tactics. In a pool of options that could be applied to help Ukraine protect its territorial integrity and end the fighting, the strategy of "if you want peace, prepare for war" could prove to be counterproductive.
This article was originally published at ABC The Drum