Ukraine’s Orange Blues: West’s Refusal to Arm Ukraine Invites Guerrilla War

Ukraine’s Orange Blues

Alexander J. Motyl

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West’s Refusal to Arm Ukraine Invites Guerrilla War

8 September 2014

If Russia launches a full-scale invasion and Ukraine is unable to defend itself with its armed forces, the result will be a “people’s war” entailing enormous casualties and millions of refugees. Ukrainians, like the citizens of other countries on Russia’s borders, know that Vladimir Putin is an existential threat to their survival as a people. They also know they have no choice but to respond to continued Russian aggression with mass popular resistance.

Such a war—involving a partisan movement with widespread civilian participation—will be extremely costly. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians will die; streams of refugees will head west. In addition, Putin will have learned that he can have his way with the United States and Europe. Aggressors everywhere will have been emboldened.
If, however, Ukraine’s military has the military equipment needed to deter a Russian invasion, people’s war will not take place, a humanitarian catastrophe will be prevented, Europe will not be inundated with refugees, and the international order might not be toppled.

There are six arguments against the West’s arming Ukraine, and none of them is persuasive.

1. Arming Ukraine will provoke Russia to escalate. The argument is moot, and wrong, as Russia has been steadily escalating since March, despite the fact that Ukraine has received no armaments from the West.

2. Arming Ukraine will lead to war. This argument is also moot, and equally wrong, as Russia launched a war in late August (if not earlier), despite the fact that Ukraine has received no armaments from the West.

3. Arming Ukraine will lead to an arms race with Russia that the West will lose. This is the intellectually strongest argument and deserves extended and detailed attention to its flaws. The thinking behind this argument, beloved of “realist” academics and policymakers, goes as follows. Russia has a larger stake in Ukraine than the West; as a result, Russia will always be willing to up the ante, and any armaments supplied by the West will always be matched or exceeded by Russia. As a result, escalation will occur and the likelihood of war will increase. No less important, at some point, the West will lose its appetite for escalation and give in without having achieved anything other than an escalation of the conflict.

For starters, note that the part of the argument claiming that Western armament supplies will lead to an escalation of the conflict and war is moot and wrong, for the reasons mentioned above.

More important, this argument has two fatal flaws.

First, it assumes that Western and Russian appetites for providing arms are constant. It is true that the West might lose its appetite for arming Ukraine if it believes that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a local affair. But it is also true that the West might not lose its appetite for arming Ukraine if it believes that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is a European affair. In the late 1930s, the European democracies initially had no appetite for countering Hitler’s aggression in Austria and Czechoslovakia. After the invasion of Poland, however, the democracies discovered that appetite and went to war against Germany. There is, in sum, no a priori guarantee that appetites—whether Western or, for that matter, Russian—will remain constant. There is, thus, also no reason to think that Russia will always outbid the West. One can easily imagine perfectly realistic circumstances—an economic collapse, a popular uprising in Moscow, the death of Putin—that would undermine this assumption.
Second, this argument misunderstands just what the point of Western armament supplies to Ukraine is. It is not to match the military capacity of Russia or to provide Ukraine with military superiority. If it were, the argument might be right to suggest that the West will always be outmatched by Russians determined not to face an existential threat from Ukraine. (Or, as I argued above, the argument might be wrong…) The real point of arming Ukraine is to make it capable of defending itself: of enabling it to deter a Russian attack or to make Russia pay a high price for any attack. If so, even a small amount of defensive armaments can enhance Ukraine’s defensive capacity—even if Russia ups the ante in response.

Here’s an example. Imagine that Country U has no anti-tank weapons and that Country R has 10 tanks. R can easily overrun U. Now imagine that U receives 10 anti-tank missiles from abroad, W, and that R increases its number of tanks to 20. R can still overrun U, but it will lose 10 tanks in the process. Will R be willing to accept such a loss? Maybe yes, maybe no. Assume now that R ups the ante to 50 tanks and that the weapons supplier W provides U with only 10 more anti-tank missiles. U remains outgunned (50 tanks to 20 anti-tank missiles) and would lose any encounter. But will R be willing to lose 20 tanks? Maybe yes, maybe no. Uncertainty enters the picture, and as R calculates its risks, it may decide that 10 or 20 tank losses are too many. Uncertainty thereby translates into a slightly enhanced Ukrainian ability to deter a Russian attack.

4. Arming Ukraine will make things worse for Ukraine. As my critique of arguments 1 and 2 showed, things have gotten worse for Ukraine in the absence of any armaments from outside. As my critique of argument 3 showed, things can only can better—even if only marginally—if it has an enhanced ability to deter aggression.

5. Arming Ukraine will drag the West into a war with Russia. This danger exists if and only if the West loses all sense of reality and decides to match all Russian armaments buildups with its own, up to and including Western troops. Rational Western leaders committed only to enhancing Ukraine’s defensive capacity will presumably not be that irrational. Western caution about providing Ukraine with armaments suggest that Western leaders are anything but reckless.

6. Arming Ukraine would create the impression that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict can be solved militarily. German Chancellor Angela Merkel just made this argument, but it is wrong precisely because it assumes that the West will engage Russia in an endless spiral of armaments deliveries. If, alternatively, the West is committed only to enhancing Ukraine’s defensive capacity in the manner described in my critique of argument 3, it would in fact be creating the impression that the conflict cannot be solved militarily.

The choice is the West’s: either provide Ukraine with the capacity to defend itself against Russian aggression or start building refugee camps and preparing expressions of outrage at Putin’s genocide against Ukrainians.
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