September 15, 2014

President Petro Poroshenko arrives in Washington this week at the most perilous moment in the history of independent Ukraine. After the Kremlin’s months of attacking Ukraine with its proxy militias, it directly invaded southeast Ukraine last month with thousands of regular Russian army troops, thus halting the Ukrainian forces’ advances in regaining control over the region. NATO's reluctance at its summit this month to respond to President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine (and his threat to eastern members of the Alliance) forced Poroshenko to accept reluctantly a cease-fire that leaves Moscow’s forces in control of much of the Donbas region and positions them to move deeper into Ukraine.

Ukrainian forces and journalists have reported shelling on Ukrainian positions since the cease-fire began September 5. A full collapse of the truce would leave the port city of Mariupol vulnerable to an assault by Russian-led forces that remain close by after they drove into Ukraine from Russia just before the cease-fire began.

Poroshenko is coming to Washington to seek urgent help. He leads a government that wants to solidify Ukraine's emerging democracy and to anchor its market economy in Europe. His existential problem is a revanchist, authoritarian Kremlin seeking to restore its influence throughout the post-Soviet space, including the territory of the old Warsaw Pact.


Poroshenko's Requests

The West endorses Poroshenko's goals and has provided some support. Its sanctions have slowed, but not stopped, Putin's aggression in Ukraine. If the sanctions had come faster and more rigorously, they would have been more effective. This will certainly will be on Poroshenko's agenda here. The sanctions that the EU imposed on Friday were serious, but would have been much more useful if levied in late August, when Moscow openly sent its forces into Ukraine despite warnings from the West that it would respond. Poroshenko will ask President Barack Obama at least to match the EU sanctions and to lead the West in establishing a new round of sanctions to be imposed immediately in response to the next Kremlin provocation.

But Poroshenko needs more than prompt sanctions. To have a chance of preventing further Kremlin advances, he needs Western military supplies now. He needs defensive weapons against Russian armor, aircraft and missile attacks to offset at least partly the Kremlin's qualitative and quantitative advantage.

Thus far, the West has denied the victim, Ukraine, access to weapons on the notion that this would trigger a Russian escalation of the conflict. Yet Putin has escalated his assault on Ukraine repeatedly this year not in the presence of Western arms supplies or other putative provocations, but in the absence of firm US and European responses to raise the cost of the aggressive moves that he has judged (correctly, so far) he could get away with. Ukraine barely trained and ill-equipped army and volunteer battalions have shown that Ukrainians will fight tenaciously against Russia’s attack. Denying them the weapons to do so is a formula for resolving the current crisis by letting Putin win. 


Supplying Arms to Ukraine

This problem is recognized in some influential quarters in Washington, including at the State Department and the Pentagon. On Capitol Hill, representatives from both parties are frustrated by Obama's reluctance to arm Ukraine. Obama in the past has wisely resisted pressure to engage militarily against the Assad regime in Syria because he understood that there was no viable opposition that shared American values. But such timidity has no place in Ukraine, where the people are yearning for Western freedoms and the new government is competent.

Poroshenko has the opportunity to make all this clear in Washington. He can remind Obama that Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons in the 1990s at the urging of the United States, Great Britain and France. He can recall that, in return, those three powers and Russia solemnly guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Moscow tore up that agreement; London, Paris, and Washington have conveniently ignored it. Poroshenko can point out that he is not asking for Western troops to fight his battles. But he would like the tools to do the job.

This is not just Ukraine's fight. Putin's stated intention to protect ethnic Russians and Russian speakers wherever they live is meant to justify Russia’s use of violence where it chooses to establish its dominance over Moldova, the Caucasus region, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. The Kremlin's abduction of an Estonian intelligence officer on September 5, as the NATO Summit ended, was a clear indicator that Putin means to apply this policy to NATO's Baltic members. Poroshenko can speak with the confidence that both American values and interests require strong support for Ukraine. There is a good chance that at least Congress will hear him.

John E. Herbst is the director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. He served as US ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006.

 

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