The Trump administration last week announced updated sanctions on Russian individuals and companies, a reminder that the conflict in eastern Ukraine remains unresolved. In late December, the administration decided to begin supplying antitank missiles to Ukraine, a reversal of an Obama-era decision not to provide lethal weapons to this conflict.
Since 2015, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has continued to simmer, with no apparent political solution on the horizon. The seizure of territory has largely ended, leaving both sides vexed at their failure to achieve their objectives. The U.S. decision in late 2017 to provide the Ukrainian government advanced Javelin antitank missiles — a move applauded by a number of former policymakers and think tanks — opens up a few big questions:
1) What’s the backstory on the lethal weaponry decision?
Tanks initially weren’t in play in 2014 when Russia annexed the strategically important Crimean Peninsula after popular protests drove Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from power. Speed was the decisive factor, and Russia was able to take over Crimea before Ukraine could muster any defense.
Shortly thereafter, Russia used covert action — an attractive option with lower political and economic costs, along with a limited risk of escalation to outright war — to instigate and foster a rebellion in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Moscow used proxy actors and limited injections of its own troops, .
When Russia’s covert foray escalated into a conventional conflict, defined by tanks and artillery support, many in the United States urged that Ukraine be supplied with Javelin missiles, which are designed to defeat tanks. Bumping up Ukraine’s defensive capabilities to counter the supply of Russian tanks would even the playing field, the argument held.
The Obama administration decided not to supply Javelins to Ukraine, due to concerns over escalation and entangling the United States in a deeper conflict with Russia. Even without the Javelins, Ukraine was able to seize back much of the territory it had lost, but direct Russian intervention prevented a total Ukrainian victory. In the end, the Minsk II agreements in the fall of 2014 laid out a cease-fire plan. But the guns never fell fully silent, and there has been little progress toward a permanent peace settlement.
2) How do the Javelins change the picture?
Since 2015, the United States has provided Ukraine with $750 million in nonlethal aid, including Humvees, night-vision equipment and short-range radar systems. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and administration officials had urged President Trump to include lethal weaponry in the U.S. military assistance program. Yet the decision is not simply a military one — there are also significant risks.
Some analysts argue that the U.S. Javelins support Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. The risk of escalating the conflict remains low because Russia can distinguish Javelins as a defensive weapon, not an offensive one.
While some political scientists agree that being able to differentiate between offensive and defensive weapons lowers the risk of war, others question the ability to understand an adversary’s intentions by the type of weaponry they acquire.
In the event of further Russian offensives, Javelins ensure Russian costs increase (although those costs would largely be in the form of proxy casualties, a limited disincentive for Russia). U.S. Javelins — an advanced system, and expensive, at $246,000 a pop — are quite effective but aren’t the only option to bolster Ukraine’s antitank capabilities. Ukraine’s own defense industry produces capable antitank missiles for a portion of that price, for instance.
And there’s an added concern that the Javelins could fall into enemy hands. Current reports state they are to remain in central Ukraine, under the watchful eyes of U.S. trainers. Even if they were to be deployed to stop any Russian breakout, it’s questionable they could be deployed fast enough or in great enough numbers to change the tide of the conflict. Not to mention that the current conflict is largely fought with artillery.
3) What does the U.S. lose by sending this weaponry to Ukraine?
In fact, supplying arms is as much political as it is military. Sending weaponry is a signal of support and commitment. Just how committed the United States would be in the face of further Russian aggression is unclear, as there are few further actions to demonstrate support beyond becoming directly involved.
But weapons also can be powerful bargaining chips. In any future negotiations, the United States could have pressured Russia by threatening to send Ukraine lethal weaponry. And the United States has likely lost any leverage to push Ukraine to make long-promised domestic changes, like fighting rampant corruption.
4) How is Russia likely to respond?
Russia retains escalation dominance in not only Ukraine but also the region. In simple terms, Moscow can deploy more troops faster than the West. One rationale during the Obama administration not to send lethal weapons was that the time to send, train and deploy the Javelins would pressure Russia to gamble even further and act to obtain key objectives, such as the port city of Mariupol.
However, my research has demonstrated Russia’s main goal was to create a mechanism to influence Ukraine internally. Invading and occupying eastern Ukraine would extinguish that goal and leave Russia supporting another economically depressed region. This year is an election year, and the Kremlin can ill afford large numbers of its young conscripts returning in body bags. That is why Russia relied so heavily on proxy forces. Thus, an obvious recourse for Russia is to simply restart the fighting and use its proxy forces to inflict even more chaos and destruction on an already impoverished area.
However, the most likely scenario, should Russia chose to escalate, may not necessarily play out in Ukraine. Russia is adept at using unconventional actors — such as organized crime networks — in unexpected places. Leveraging its role in Syria, ratcheting up pressure on the Baltics or hatching some new plan in Afghanistan are all options available to Russia. For U.S. policymakers, this gives an added reason to consider all the angles — and all possible Russian responses.
Sending U.S. Javelins to Ukraine currently brings little military benefit, while heightening the risk of escalation with Russia. Unlike 2014, however, the risk of escalation is not confined to Ukraine, giving Russia the advantage of choosing exactly where and how it responds.
Andrew S. Bowen is a PhD candidate in political science at Boston College and an associate at the Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats (ISET) at New York University.