Skip to content

Guns, Money, and Ukraine

Despite this week’s deadline for Russia and Ukraine to stand down, an end to the fighting is unlikely. And as often happens in situations like this, where no vital American interests are at stake, but there appears to be a “bad guy” doing bad things, Washington interventionists want to throw weapons at the problem.

A joint report created this month by the Brookings Institution, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and the Atlantic Council epitomizes the general tenor of this interventionist consensus. The report sees this as “a Munich moment,” one that requires us to arm Ukraine to both protect our credibility and stop Putin’s spreading sphere of influence. These groups do have clout. When they suggest that America should donate $3 billion a year for the next three years to arm Ukraine, they’re not representing some fringe hawkish fantasy; they’re echoing prevailing establishment sentiment in D.C.

Of course Senator McCain wants to arm Ukraine—he’s never met an international crisis that he didn’t think he could solve with bullets. But John Kerry is open to arming the Ukrainian army, too, according to the New York Times at the beginning of February; so is General Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Susan Rice was originally resistant to the idea of sending weapons to the Ukraine, but now she’s open to it. Outgoing secretary of defense Chuck Hagel supports arming the Ukraine, and so does incoming secretary Ashton Carter. Ivo Daalder, Obama’s former NATO ambassador, supports it; Michèle Flournoy, likely to be Hillary Clinton’s choice for defense secretary if she were elected, is a big supporter of armed intervention, too.

Talking heads and columnists are in on the groupthink, too. Andrea Mitchell and Chuck Todd presented the bipartisan pro-interventionist consensus as fait accompli on Meet the Press. David Brooks, Fareed Zakaria, and Roger Cohen each support what they consider a principled choice to “get real” with Putin. Obviously, the herd has been spooked.

But arming Ukraine is a bad idea. Russia has more of a stake in what happens to Ukraine that we do. Could you imagine how scared Americans would be if Russians began arming Mexico during a high-tension border dispute? If Putin seems irrational, imagine how some Texas governor would react in that situation. If we did arm Ukraine, Russia would just match our contributions with their own arms to the rebels. And then what would we do? Keep propping up the Ukraine indefinitely? Send in our troops?

Pat Buchanan, who’s not necessarily always wrong about everything, asked, “What would Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, or Reagan think of an American president willing to risk military conflict with a nuclear-armed Russia over two provinces in southeastern Ukraine that Moscow had ruled from the time of Catherine the Great?”

Even if American armaments didn’t escalate the violence, we don’t really have a great track record when it comes to fighting proxy wars. In case you’ve forgotten, we still have thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan right now battling for their lives against the oddly evolved remnants of the Mujahideen that we armed and trained to fight the Soviets. The past isn’t the past, and all that.

There’s a distinct possibility that any weapons we give Ukraine might end up in the wrong hands. The missile that brought down Malaysian Flight 17 was discovered by German intelligence to have been stolen from a Ukrainian military base. The Ukrainian army doesn’t have the proper security or training to inspire any confidence that if we did arm them, they would be able to keep the weapons secure. Once weapons are out of American hands, there’s absolutely no guarantee about how they’re going to be used. That’s another lesson that our long history of giving covert aid to contras, rebels, and “freedom fighters” should have taught us.

Arming Ukraine is a bad idea, but at least it’s an idea that seems to be relegated to the Washington think tank/Sunday talk show crowd. Despite the bipartisan consensus for intervention among celebrity journalists, most Americans still oppose it. And probably more importantly, most European leaders oppose it, too.

Opposition by a majority of Americans and European leaders hasn’t always been enough to subdue the hawkish cabal of elites that run our foreign policy establishment, but it’s something. There might yet be hope.