FPI Bulletin: “Speed and Speed Now” to Aid Ukraine

February 23, 2015

The situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate.  Russia and its proxy forces have continually violated  the cease-fire agreement they signed two weeks ago in Minsk. The most flagrant violation of the cease-fire has been what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called this weekend a “full scale assault” on the strategic railway hub of Debaltseve.  This latest disaster—and the looming threat to other strategic cities in Ukraine such as the port of Mariupol—serves as a grim reminder of why the United States should expand the scope of its assistance to Ukraine—including the provision of lethal military aid.

Vladimir Putin’s immediate violation of the Minsk agreement should come as no surprise.  After Putin signed a similar agreement in September 2014, Russian-backed separatists seized over 500 square miles of Ukrainian territory with direct support from Russian forces.  NATO Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove recently told journalists there are “hundreds of Russian regulars in eastern Ukraine providing capabilities like air defense, electronic warfare support to artillery, [and] command and control.” This weekend, Secretary Kerry stated, “We know to a certainty what Russia has been providing, and no amount of propaganda is capable of hiding these actions.”  He warned, “If this failure [to abide by the Minsk agreement] continues, make no mistake: There will be further consequences...We’re not going to sit back and allow this kind of cynical, craven behavior to continue at the expense of the sovereignty and integrity of another nation.”

The time has come for President Obama to make good on such warnings. The President has often said there would be serious consequences for Mr. Putin’s aggression, yet his hesitant and limited actions have not deterred Mr. Putin at all. Thanks to the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which passed without opposition, President Obama unquestionably has the authority to expand the scope of military assistance to Ukraine.  All he needs is the determination to use it.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Lieutenant General Frederick “Ben” Hodges, USA, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, reported that Russia has “brought in some of the latest, most-effective jamming, what we would call electronic-warfare, systems…They are deploying capabilities way above and beyond anything that any militia or rebel organization could ever come up with.” As a result, Ukrainian government troops can barely communicate with each other, which leaves them blind on the battlefield. By providing secure communications equipment, the U.S. could alleviate this problem considerably.

Lt. Gen. Hodges also told NBC News that  the Ukrainians “are getting hammered by Russian artillery. They are targeted by drones, Russian UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], they get hit by Russian and rebel artillery, rocket launchers.”  Hodges said this problem could be addressed by providing Ukrainian troops with counter-artillery radar that would warn them of incoming fire and enable them to fire back at its point of origin.

Non-lethal aid for the Ukrainians should also include armored Humvees for protection and unarmed drones to facilitate reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.

It is also essential to accelerate the pace at which this aid is being sent to Kyiv. Josh Rogin of Bloomberg View reports that “only half of the $118 million of nonlethal assistance pledged to Ukraine has so far been delivered.”  Among the items missing are “water purification systems, medical supplies, binoculars, sleeping bags, tents and cold weather gear.”  Rogin further notes that “many in the State Department and Defense Department are frustrated with the White House, which they argue hasn’t shown urgency in getting the gear to Ukraine.”  In light of Russia’s “cynical, craven” violations of the Minsk agreement as Secretary Kerry put it, the Obama administration should, at a minimum, rush to ensure the gear that it has already promised Kyiv arrives in short order.

While non-lethal aid is beneficial, the U.S. and NATO should also provide lethal aid  to counter the advanced weapons that Russia employs.  The first requirement is for small arms, ammunition and anti-tank weaponry, such as the Javelin anti-tank missile. Major General Robert Scales, U.S. Army (ret.) recommends going a step further by providing with Ukraine Multiple Launch Rocket Systems.  Maj. Gen. Scales says that this precise, long-range weapon would “be able to destroy Russian targets methodically, one at a time. Such a campaign could slowly eliminate Russian static targets and force the fight to devolve into a dismounted infantry campaign, a campaign the Ukrainian army can win.” 

A recent report from the Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution, and Chicago Council on Global Affairs also recommends that the United States and NATO countries bolster Ukraine’s air defense capabilities.  Although American systems would be difficult to integrate into Ukraine’s existing network, there are NATO countries that operate Soviet-era systems similar to the ones employed by Kyiv.

Finally, the United States and Europe should raise the cost of aggression by intensifying the economic pressure on Russia.  One measure that would inflict severe damage to the Kremlin would be to exclude some or most Russian banks from the international financial transactions service known as SWIFT.  As The Economist notes, Russian banks are heavy users of SWIFT—indeed, as many as 90% of transactions involving Russian banks move across borders.  Former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin estimated last September that exclusion from SWIFT could shrink the Russian economy by as much as 5 percent. 

Similar sanctions were imposed on Iran in 2012 and helped force Tehran to the negotiating table.  Subsequently, as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has noted, “Iranian negotiators have systematically demanded that this is one of the sanctions that should be relieved first.” Banning Moscow from SWIFT should be an immediate priority for both Washington and our European partners.  That’s why it is encouraging that a bipartisan group of ten U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry last week, urging precisely this course of action.

If Russia succeeds in its attempt to establish a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, then as the Atlantic Council, Brookings Institution, and Chicago Council noted in their February report, Ukraine’s stability would be “fatally” undermined and Mr. Putin would be emboldened “to further challenge the security order in Europe.  Indeed, U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon warned Thursday that there is a “real and present danger” of Putin repeating the tactics that he has used in Ukraine to destabilize the NATO-member Baltic states. 

In the face of the Kremlin’s “real and present danger” to Eastern Europe, the Obama administration should develop a compelling sense of urgency to aid Ukraine.  On March 15, 1941, President Roosevelt celebrated the approval of the Lend-Lease bill to aid Great Britain by saying “Here in Washington, we are thinking in terms of speed and speed now. And I hope that that watchword—‘Speed, and speed now’—will find its way into every home in the Nation.”  Nearly three-quarters of a century later, and now that Congress authorized legislation to ship arms to Ukraine, that watchword is sorely needed to be heard in the White House again.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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