Ukraine Arms A Delicate Balance

KIEV, Ukraine -- As the stalemate of fighting in eastern Ukraine approaches four years, analysts say a recent U.S. decision to provide Kiev with lethal arms may pose a familiar question to Washington: How far will America go to assist Ukraine?

A Ukrainian soldier, supported by armoured personnel carriers, mans a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine.

Both Ukrainian and Russian officials label the U.S. assistance, approved by the Trump administration at the Pentagon's suggestion in late December, as a significant increase in collaboration between Washington and Kiev.

But American officials have repeatedly tamped down the significance, saying the arms are merely defensive measures.

The arms deal, analysts warn, threatens to entangle Washington more deeply in the Ukrainian conflict at a time when violence in eastern Ukraine is increasing and the U.S. is occupied with conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

At the beginning of his first year in office, President Donald Trump chose to follow the path of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and not provide arms to Ukrainians out of concern that it would increase tensions with Russia.

But U.S.-Russia relations have steadily worsened in the past 12 months, and many analysts say that when Washington and Kiev reached the deal in late December, it was a nod to conservative hawks in his Republican Party.

Moscow, however, says the arms deal is dangerous and accuses the U.S. of threatening to provoke an uptick in fighting.

U.S. officials have yet to specify what the military aid will comprise, but several unnamed officials have said it will include the anti-tank Javelin missiles that Ukraine has been asking for since war broke out with Russian-backed forces in 2014.

Samuel Charap from the RAND Corporation says Javelins are a "politically charged issue."

The Ukrainian army has more pressing needs, Charap says, such as more radar and secure communications systems.

This is especially true after Russia's success in thwarting the Ukrainian army's ability to communicate with itself.

Russia has demonstrated, Charap says, that it is not sensitive to financial or human losses to achieve an objective.

He further expressed doubt that the U.S. is prepared to respond in the event of an escalation between the two sides.

"U.S. involvement with a big symbolic decision like this means people will then argue that U.S. prestige is on the line," Charap says.

"It's not going to give Ukraine a dramatic improvement in its capabilities on the battlefield and it also has all these potential negative consequences."

Others, such as Michael Carpenter, deputy assistant secretary of defense on Ukraine and Russia in the Obama administration, agrees with the White House's decision, saying that the lethal assistance will act a significant deterrent to any future territorial ambitions.

According to Carpenter, it is likely to give the green light to other countries to allow arm sales to Ukraine which will altogether make the war more costly for Russia.

Justin Bronk, a weapons expert with the Royal United Services Institute, says the Javelins would be highly effective against Russian tanks but questioned the choice of supplying anti-tank missiles as there has not been a tank battle since February 2015.

Russia forcibly annexed Crimea in February and March 2014, a move that set off fighting between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine.

The Minsk agreements were signed by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine in 2015 and banned artillery and heavy weapons at the contact line, also called the line of demarcation.

In late December, Western diplomats and observers said the fighting in eastern Ukraine had suddenly escalated and was the heaviest in nearly a year.

Officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe say the fighting from 2017 to early February 2018 is worse than in 2016.

The fighting has claimed the lives of more than 11,000 people – both fighters and civilians – and forced more than a million to flee their homes.

Source: US News & World Report