September 28, 2017
While analysts agree that diplomacy is the ideal route to ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine, they disagree on whether the United States sending defensive weapons to Ukraine will achieve that end.

On September 22, the Atlantic Council, in collaboration with the Charles Koch Institute, hosted a debate between experts: Should the United States Arm Ukraine?

The divisive prospect of sending US weapons to Ukraine as further defense against Russian aggression in the Donbas could, according to those in favor, defend US interests on the world stage. Alternatively, countered those opposed to the idea, it could escalate the conflict in a manner detrimental to US national security.

Analysts both for and against sending weapons to Ukraine argued that a decision must be predicated on a consideration of what is in the best interests of the United States, yet the opposing sides diverged on how to achieve those ends.

“We need to make sure that we’re not just looking at this vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine, but to our goals more generally,” said William Ruger, vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute. Arguing against the idea of sending US weapons to Ukraine, he said: “It isn’t necessary for our safety. It isn’t productive.”

By contrast, according to Alexander Vershbow, a distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, who argued for sending weapons to Ukraine, “we have to be clear on our goals, but we have to be clear about what’s at stake here: Are we going to let Russia get away with destroying the rules-based international order?”

“The future of an international order based on the rule of law rather than the law of the jungle is on the line,” said Vershbow, who served deputy secretary general of NATO from February 2012 to October 2016.

Ruger was supported in his argument against sending weapons by Rajan Menon, the Anne and Bernard Spitzer chair in political science at the City College of New York. On the opposing side, John E. Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine, joined Vershbow in his support for sending weapons. Hannah Thoburn, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, moderated the debate.

With Russia’s recent proposal for a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission in Ukraine and the appointment of Kurt Volker as the US special representative to Ukraine, the conversation around sending US arms to Ukraine “has reemerged on the policy scene,” said Thoburn. It was first raised in 2014 with Russia’s invasion of the Donbas. Former US President Barack Obama did not approve sending lethal aid to Ukraine.

However, with the new administration of US President Donald J. Trump, hopes of sending such aid to Ukraine have been revived. In August, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis promised to support Ukraine, and assured the administration would review the possibility of sending lethal aid. Such aid would involve higher-grade technology to allow Ukrainians fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas to more effectively defend themselves.

According to Vershbow, the most controversial machinery under consideration are anti-tank weapons. Such defensive weapons would not enable Ukraine to regain territory, but it could help them to deter Russian advances, he said.

Trump met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Washington on September 21. Though they agreed on further defense cooperation, no announcement was made regarding the provision of US weapons.

The argument made by Herbst and Vershbow in favor of sending weapons to Ukraine rested on the idea that defending Ukraine is tantamount to the United States’ defending the rules-based international order, which is very much in its interests.

“We have an absolutely critical interest in maintaining… the post-World War II global order,” insisted Herbst, adding: “Maintaining this is critical for our security and our well-being.” As such, the fight in Ukraine, which began with Russia’s violation of international borders for territorial gain, is of vital interest to the United States, he said.

The Kremlin’s aggression on the world stage, not only in Ukraine, but in Georgia and Syria as well, have threatened the stability of this global order. “Today’s Russia is using both military force and hybrid methods” to upset the international order, said Vershbow. He also cautioned that “other aggressive territories like China could be emboldened to use force to make territorial gains,” if the United States does not pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to scale back.

Herbst and Vershbow claimed that providing weapons to Ukraine could raise the cost of conflict for Putin, who still maintains that Russia is not involved in Ukraine, just enough to coerce him to the negotiating table. The ultimate goal of providing defensive weapons, said Vershbow, is to help Ukraine defend itself and increase pressure on Russia to uphold the ceasefire stipulated in the Minsk Agreement.

“The aim is not to encourage Ukraine to seek a military victory,” said Vershbow, rather: “The challenge is how to change President Putin’s calculus and convince him to negotiate in good faith on implementing Minsk and getting out of the Donbas.”

However, Ruger and Menon cautioned that, instead of attempting to predict Putin’s response, the United States should take a more cautious, pragmatic approach to the issue. “We need to think like realists,” said Ruger, adding: “We should show a little bit more humility about our ability to produce positive outcomes in the world.”


After weathering economic sanctions and political isolation, “there is not a whit of evidence that Putin is willing to back down” as a result of international pressure, said Menon. While it is possible that, by sending weapons to Ukraine, the United States could induce negotiations, Menon cautioned that it could also lead to an escalation in the conflict, which would not serve US interests.

“Betting that [Putin] is going to play by your rules is not a valid thing to do here,” he said, citing previous examples of US foreign policy miscalculations with regard to its ability to coerce an adversary into negotiating, namely Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

While he acknowledged that a failure to anticipate adversaries’ responses has been a problem in US foreign policy, “I don’t think it’s a problem here,” said Herbst. Sending defensive weapons to Ukraine may not change Putin’s mind, he said, but “providing weapons will make Mr. Putin more cautious.”

Should Putin indeed escalate the conflict in kind by pouring further military resources into the Donbas, Menon contended that the United States would have three options: send more weapons, send US troops, or back down. According to Menon, none of these are desirable or feasible options. Ruger cautioned that it is not in US national security interests to be drawn into another protracted conflict. “It’s very difficult for us to engage in an escalation spiral in a way that’s good for the United States,” he said.

However, Herbst asserted, the provision of defensive arms to Ukraine would preempt a more involved conflict. Should Russia continue its belligerent behavior and attack a NATO ally like Estonia or a Baltic country, the United States would have no choice but to come to its defense, he said. “The forward defense of our interests demands that we help Mr. Putin have a hard time in the Donbas,” said Herbst.

“I think it’s highly unlikely the Russians would respond to the kind of assistance being discussed here by escalating massively,” said Vershbow. However, Ruger contended, “we need to be sober about what could occur and what might be next.”

“Be very clear about what you need to do and don’t do what is not in our interests and what isn’t necessary,” he said, cautioning against a gamble on Putin which might not pay off in the United States’ interests. “It’s not that we don’t want to do anything,” said Ruger, “it’s that we’re choosing our means carefully.”

While the United States “can’t rule out that providing additional limited equipment to Ukraine won’t [lead to] Kremlin escalation,” Herbst conceded, inaction nearly ensures it. “What we’ve seen is the escalation of Russian aggression in the absence of such countermeasures,” he said.

“Soft approaches failed,” said Herbst, adding: “It’s time to try something better.”

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

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