Correction Unnecessary

Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky is unhappy and he has been tweeting.  Specifically, he demands a correction to my August 8 post that criticized some of the points in his opinion piece arguing against sending defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine. He claims that he “did not argue” what I said; he has “no idea how” I could have “read that stuff into” his piece; and he politely requests that I “either change that paragraph or remove the inaccurate reference to” his column.

Mr. Bershidsky doth protest too much.  You can decide whether or not I misconstrued what he was saying.  Here is what I wrote:

Leonid Bershidsky argues that it is futile to send anti-tank weapons to Ukraine because Moscow has 20,000 tanks and can always provide more. In addition, he asserts, there have been few changes in territory around the contact line over the past two years and, therefore, anti-tank weapons would be used in a Ukrainian effort to take back the territories currently occupied by Moscow. This is simply wrong.

Now read what Mr. Bershidsky wrote in his Bloomberg View column in two full paragraphs.  On the alleged futility of providing Ukraine with anti-tank weapons he said:

“In fact, using Javelins on most of the separatists’ tanks, or indeed on most of the Russian tanks used in eastern Ukraine, would be like swatting flies with a sledgehammer. Russia has so many more tanks than any country in the world—more than 20,000—because an overwhelming majority of them are dispensable, easy-to-burn, old models, such as the T-72, first introduced in 1973, and the T-80 that came the next decade. Lots of these are necessary to ensure overwhelming force so that no matter how many the enemy burns, some will break through.”

Regarding whether Russia has made major territorial gains since 2015 and providing weapons would encourage Ukraine to take back the land in the Donbas seized by Moscow, here is what Mr. Bershidsky had to say:

“Two years after both sides have largely kept to existing demarcation lines (minor encroachments aside), it is militarily unnecessary to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons unless the US wants to encourage it to try to reclaim the ‘people’s republics.’ That would be a mistake. Though Russia doesn’t have enough resources to take over and hold Ukraine while still staying on the lookout for other military threats, it has plenty of money, firepower and determination to defend the separatist statelets. Giving them up would mean the end of Putin’s aura of invincibility, leaving him vulnerable at home and overseas.”

Perusing my writings alongside Mr. Bershidsky’s reveals no mischaracterization.  But I understand Mr. Bershidsky’s frustration and acknowledge one point. He tweets correctly that he “DID argue… that sending Javelins to Ukraine might set off a dangerous escalation in the quality of weapons used by both sides.”  Yes, that may have been his main argument, but in the process, he made ancillary ones and statements of fact that were subject to challenge.

My purpose was not to write a full-fledged review of his article or the other op-eds that I criticized.  It was to subject to analysis the arguments in these writings that I considered the most important in the debate on arming Ukraine. Given the space limitations, I could not address every argument.

I chose not to address Mr. Bershidsky’s main argument for two reasons. First, it was based on an erroneous assumption about the motivation of the US military.  Mr. Bershidsky correctly wrote that the Russian military is using Ukraine to test troops and weapons.  But he then suggests the same about the US military.  (“US generals are likely also eager for such a test. If the US doesn’t have an effective defense against modern Russian tanks, that’s a problem.”)  If this statement was true, there is a good chance that US weapons would have flooded into Ukraine years ago.  In my judgment, that statement undercut the persuasiveness of his overall argument.  Second, his “escalation of qualitative weapons” argument is part of the general “Russia has escalation dominance” argument, which I addressed in my article.

So there is no need for a “correction” of my article.  But I am glad Mr. Bershidsky read my piece.  He is an excellent journalist who has done important work in Russia.  His writings on Russia are always insightful, if at times open to challenge. 

My thanks to my colleagues for bringing Mr. Bershidsky’s tweets to my attention.  Otherwise, I might have been blissfully ignorant of his complaints.

John E. Herbst is director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. Follow him on Twitter @JohnEdHerbst.

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Image: A Ukrainian serviceman fires a weapon towards the positions of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in the frontline town of Krasnohorivka, in Donetsk region, Ukraine July 25, 2017. Picture taken July 25, 2017. (REUTERS/Maksim Levin)