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Gasoline on a Fire: Why Arms Sales to Ukraine are a Really Bad Idea

Ted Galen Carpenter

It’s been a very bad month for Washington’s relations with
Moscow, culminating in the Trump administration’s ill-advised
decision to authorize the commercial sale of “defensive” weapons to
Ukraine.  The flippant comment that Secretary of Defense
James Mattis expressed earlier in Kiev apparently summarizes the
administration’s attitude.  According to Mattis, “defensive
weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor, and
clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor.” The reality is that given the
already lengthy record of U.S. meddling in Ukraine, especially
encouraging the demonstrators who overthrew the country’s
pro-Russian elected president in 2014, moving to arm Ukraine is
extremely provocative. That country not only is in Russia’s sphere
of influence, it is the single most important entity in Russia’s
core security zone.

The Ukraine arms sale came on the heels of the release of newly
de-classified documents confirming that U.S. leaders assured Russia in
1990 that NATO would not expand beyond the eastern border
of a united Germany. For years, U.S. officials and their defenders in the foreign policy community
and the mainstream media insisted that no such firm commitment had been given. And there was
no evidence of a written agreement.  The new revelations,
though, should effectively torpedo that disingenuous defense. It is
now clear that assurances were given, and that Washington’s
subsequent moves to expand NATO severely damaged trust between the two
countries.

The Trump
administration’s decision to approve arms sales to Ukraine is akin
to pouring gasoline on an already simmering fire.

President Trump’s announcement of a new U.S. national security strategy likely added to
Moscow’s irritation. It proclaims that both China and Russia are
“strategic competitors” of the United States. The president’s
speech also contained allegations of specific Russian misdeeds,
ranging from the annexation of Crimea to efforts to split the
Western alliance, to meddling in the internal political affairs of
other countries. Those actions supposedly pose a serious threat to
America’s security and well-being. The document’s language was
disturbingly reminiscent of Washington’s harsh, confrontational
rhetoric throughout the Cold War.

Approving even a limited arms sale to Ukraine, given the context
of those other developments, was especially maladroit.  A
secessionist war in the eastern portion of the country has simmered
since 2014.  Russia backs the rebels and even has unofficially
deployed its own forces at times in the conflict zone. The
situation in eastern Ukraine remains extremely tense and volatile,
despite the signing of the so-called Minsk Agreement designed to dampen the
fighting.

Washington’s authorization of weapons sales to Kiev risks
destabilizing a very delicate situation. It will encourage
hardliners in the Ukrainian government to press for a military
victory in the belief that additional, even more lethal, U.S.
backing may be forthcoming. But the military option for Ukraine is
a dangerous illusion. Given Russia’s crucial security stakes in not
having another U.S. military client on its border, it is unlikely
that the Kremlin will tolerate the complete destruction of
insurgent forces in Ukraine’s east. Russian officials are already
unhappy about having a NATO presence, including troops and heavy
weapons, in the Baltic republics and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Those leaders consider Ukraine even more vital to their country’s
security.

Trump’s decision on the arms sale is the latest blow to American
foreign policy realists who believed his comments during the 2016
presidential campaign that he wanted to repair relations with
Moscow. It’s possible that the virulent accusations from domestic
political opponents about Russian interference in the election has
intimidated the president into trying to shore-up his national
security and anti-Russia credentials with this move. Hawks in both
the Democratic and Republican parties have pushed for weapons sales
to Ukraine for years, so that was a logical measure to placate
them. Whatever the reason, though, it is a step in the wrong
direction.

If the United States is to avoid deepening an already severe
chill in relations with Moscow, U.S. leaders must acknowledge that
Russia will insist on a sphere of influence in its immediate
neighborhood and deeply resent Western intrusion into that sphere.
Unfortunately, American policymakers seem oblivious to the
long-standing reality in international affairs that all great
powers tend to behave that way. Such a denial of reality is not
unique to the Trump administration. Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly denounced the
concept of spheres of influence, especially with respect
to Russia.

It is a dangerously myopic view. Washington needs to proceed
with far greater caution than it has displayed to this point
regarding its actions in the vicinity of other major powers. 
The Trump administration’s decision to approve arms sales to
Ukraine is akin to pouring gasoline on an already simmering fire.
Relations with Russia are tense enough without such a needlessly
antagonistic step.

Ted Galen
Carpenter
, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy
studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the
National Interest, is the author of ten books, the contributing
editor of ten books, and the author of more than seven hundred
articles on international affairs.