Ever since Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, subsequently backing a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine that simmers to this day, the United States has responded with a mix of sanctions, diplomacy, and military assistance.
That final part – supporting the Ukrainian military – has included support of defense reforms, on both strategic and tactical levels; training; and $750 million-worth of non-lethal equipment.
But there are whispers of change in Washington, hints that a perennial policy option that former President Barack Obama long rejected may be receiving a fresh lease on life: providing lethal defensive weapons to the Ukrainians.
Some analysts vehemently oppose such a move, worried mostly by the prospect of a Russian escalation in response.
Outlining the main concern of the Obama era, Rajan Menon, a political scientist at the City College of New York, described a 1,165-mile border that Russia shares with Ukraine, and the “thousands of Russian troops ensconced in military bases” along its length.
He compared this with some 6,000 miles that separate Ukraine from the United States.
“Why would the reaction of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin … not be to scale up what he can do very easily, which is to reinforce the separatists?” Dr. Menon asked, speaking at a panel discussion last week hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Let’s be clear, Vladimir Putin has weathered sanctions, political isolation, put his soldiers on the ground, and allowed them to die in this cause.”
But today there appears to be increased support in senior government circles – not least as part of a broader effort to push back against an increasingly assertive foreign policy coming out of Moscow.
At a recent press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis dismissed fears of an escalation. “Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you’re an aggressor,” he said in response to a reporter’s question, and Ukraine is clearly “not an aggressor” as the fighting is happening within its own borders.
“We are closer than we’ve ever been before on the possibility of arming the Ukrainians,” says Luke Coffey, director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. “But the administration should understand it’s not a panacea: Weapons should be just one part in dealing with Russian…