Differences over arming Ukrainian security forces could vanish if Minsk talks fail, says Atlantic Council’s Burwell

The question of providing defensive weapons to Ukraine’s security forces will dominate the meeting between US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on February 9.

The Obama administration is reportedly considering providing the arms, which Germany opposes.

The German position could change if a February 11 meeting between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France in Belarus’ capital Minsk to discuss a peace plan for eastern Ukraine fails to produce a breakthrough or if the Russians do not stick to the terms of an agreement, said Frances G. Burwell, Vice President and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Program on Transatlantic Relations.

“I think [Merkel] needs to have this last, rather impressive bout of negotiations in order to bring her political constituencies with her should she chose after Minsk to make a different decision,” Burwell said in an interview.

“I don’t think the Germans will arm the Ukrainians, but what we’re looking for is the fact that Americans arming the Ukrainians and others who may wish to does not cause a rift,” she added.

Opposing positions in Washington and Berlin on arming the Ukrainians have already sparked speculation of a rift between the US and Germany.

Obama and Merkel will put up a united front, said Burwell.

“The thing that is most valuable for Vladimir Putin is divisions between the US and Europe, and in particular between the US and Germany,” she added.

The US and European Union have used economic sanctions to try and deter Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine. The sanctions have taken a toll on Russia’s economy, but have done little to deter the Kremlin’s meddling in Ukraine.

Eight former US officials, including four from the Atlantic Council, have recommended providing defensive military equipment to Ukraine’s security forces to raise the cost of war for Russia.

The report, Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do, is produced by the Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Arming the Ukrainians will encourage diplomacy with Russia because “right now, for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, not adhering to the earlier Minsk agreement has had very little cost,” said Burwell.

Burwell spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts below:

Q: Has a rift emerged between the US and Germany over arming the Ukrainians?

Burwell: We’re actually seeing a rift within the United States where we have some lead members of Congress and some think tank experts, including many of my colleagues at the Atlantic Council, who want to arm Ukraine. It’s not clear to me that the top levels of the administration are won over to that position.

Secretary [of State John F.] Kerry made it clear over the weekend that one of the top priorities of the administration is to stay aligned with our European allies, and particularly to make sure that we don’t do anything that disrupts the likelihood of sanctions being renewed. There is no doubt that the Germans have a much stronger economic stake in that, so we need the Germans on board. They have been taking a real leadership role on this in the EU.

Q: Do you support arming the Ukrainians?

Burwell: Reluctantly, yes. I have come to the conclusion that this is the next step. There were two issues that I hear, certainly in Germany, that have made me hesitate.

Reason No. 1, how will President Putin use this in his propaganda campaign? I think he will anyway, so I don’t see that as a problem any more. His rhetoric already puts the blame on us, yet he is the one who is escalating.

Reason No. 2, in Germany it plays into this view of the United States as kind of a cowboy nation. The Germans are, for historical reasons and for reasons of proximity, very reluctant to escalate anything vis-à-vis Russia on a military framework. I find that very understandable. However, right now I see arming the Ukrainians as more part of the bargaining strategy. I can support it in that way.

No one is talking about arming Ukraine to the point where the Ukrainians will be able to survive an all-out war with Russia. That’s just impossible. This is about making it more costly for the Russians, and about saving some Ukrainian lives that are being unnecessarily lost because they don’t have the right defensive equipment.

Q: Is there any scenario in which the Germans would drop their reluctance to arm the Ukrainians?

Burwell: The Minsk meeting later this week is key. The Chancellor has already made clear through many channels that she has not found her discussions with President Putin to be ones where he is consistent, to put it mildly! She has kept the door open because Russia is a very important neighbor for Germany, and we should understand that. But on this issue she had made it very clear that President Putin has not held to his promises.

I think she needs to have this last, rather impressive bout of negotiations in order to bring her political constituencies with her should she chose after Minsk to make a different decision.   

I don’t think the Germans will arm the Ukrainians, but what we’re looking for is the fact that Americans arming the Ukrainians and others who may wish to does not cause a rift. German tolerance for that will be different if there is not a successful negotiation in Minsk.

If there is a successful negotiation then great, but the proof will be in the implementation.

I hope we will hold off making any decisions until after the dust has settled from Minsk.

Q: What are your expectations of Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Washington?

Burwell: There will be a lot of unity shown publicly about staying in line with each other. The thing that is most valuable for Vladimir Putin is divisions between the US and Europe, and in particular between the US and Germany.

I think there will be a very tough, realistic private discussion about expectations for Minsk. I hope that we would lay out, if Minsk succeeds, points that we expect to be implemented in some kind of a time frame.

What we have seen over and over again is the Germans and the Europeans can react if they have particular elements that have been agreed to but then are not upheld. Not a wishy-washy, “Oh, the Russians are escalating.”

Q: What position would the Obama administration be comfortable with the Germans taking? The Germans saying, “We won’t arm, but you can go ahead and do it”?  

Burwell: I think that they would be very comfortable with that. I don’t think that they have any expectation that they Germans would arm.

Q: Is that something the Germans would consider or is there position a blanket, “No one should arm the Ukrainians”?

Burwell: That’s what the Germans will say right now, but I think that if Minsk fails either because the discussions are no good or if the Russians do not stick to what is agreed on Wednesday, then they would tolerate us arming the Ukrainians.

Q: Does arming Ukrainians shut the door on diplomacy?

Burwell: I don’t think so. I think it actually encourages diplomacy because right now, for Putin, not adhering to the earlier Minsk agreement has had very little cost. The main cost to him are the Russian soldiers who have been killed and the discontent in their families that may arise. Many of them were killed while they were technically on “leave” and I understand don’t get death benefits and have been buried in unmarked graves. Clearly there is some discussion within Russia about this.

If we can raise that cost to Putin, then arming Ukraine must be part of the calculus that he must consider. Will he have even more dead Russians? Will his proxies have even less success on the battlefield?

One of the things we are facing is a campaign for Mariupol to build a land bridge to Crimea. An offensive against Mariupol would be a flashpoint that would change the conversation in Europe.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council.