On his visit to Ukraine this week, the American defense secretary, Jim Mattis, confirmed that he favors providing “defensive weapons” to the former Soviet republic. According to recent reports, this military aid would involve sending Javelin anti-tank guided missiles to Ukraine, which has been fighting Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region for more than three years.
The Trump administration’s plan to arm Kiev is a serious political decision that could have far-reaching strategic consequences. The United States is walking into a proxy war with Moscow — one that it is unprepared to win.
Notionally, helping Ukraine is admirable, but the lack of public discussion and suddenness of this announcement are worrisome. While arming Kiev may seem like an easy political win, it is poor policy. The idea of providing Ukraine with $50 million-worth of anti-tank missiles is eerily reminiscent of Washington’s halfhearted efforts to train and arm the moderate Syrian opposition.
That plan was ill-conceived and ended in defeat after Russia escalated its military backing of the government of President Bashar al-Assad in 2015. Russia’s interests in Ukraine are far greater and its military superiority is well established. In contrast, the United States’ coercive credibility in the region is close to nonexistent.
The proposal to send arms to Kiev is also untimely. Ukraine has not seen a Russian offensive, or lost significant territory to Russia, in more than two years. Of all the possible ways to help the country improve its armed forces, dumping missiles on an unreformed military hardly seems the smart way forward. This is the time to help the country transform, not play geopolitical checkers with missiles.
Leading American generals in the region, like the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, have long argued that providing Ukraine with arms, specifically Javelins, would “not change the situation strategically in a positive way.” There is no indication of a forthcoming Russian attack, but in any case, the asymmetry of power between the two countries is so great that no sensible analyst would argue that a few portable antitank missiles could tip the balance. Given the nature of the conflict, there is little chance of exhausting Russia in Ukraine.
The Javelin is also an expensive and impractical choice to give a country with a large military that already has anti-tank guided missiles, and makes its own. For $50 million, which will equip only a fraction of Ukraine’s armed forces with Javelins, Kiev could obtain a much larger number of comparable weapons from other countries or manufacture more at home.
Most of the casualties in eastern Ukraine have been, and continue to be, from artillery and small-arms fire. The conflict has seen very few tank battles; those that did occur were among small units. Despite the vaunted number of Russian tanks in Ukraine — a figure that is likely exaggerated — this has never been a war of major tank offensives.
Ukraine’s armed forces did employ anti-tank guided missiles and inflicted losses on the separatists during the battles of August 2014 and February 2015. Yet Kiev failed to achieve victory, and the losses had little discernible deterrent effect on Russia, which was always fighting for strategic leverage rather than territory.
The push to supply Javelin missiles to Ukraine is really a political decision that would turn the conflict between Russia and Ukraine into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. Ukrainians may understandably dream of Washington’s joining the conflict, but American policy makers should remember that their obligation is to their own national interest. Washington should focus its attention instead on its NATO allies.
If the Trump administration’s intent is to send a signal to Moscow, then American officials should remember that there are many in the Kremlin willing to send a signal back. Have they considered the balance of interests, and the capabilities both sides can bring to bear? Don’t bet on it.
The United States should also exercise caution in the signals it sends Ukraine. There is moral hazard for Washington in belligerently proclaiming support for a nation when it has zero intention to fight on that nation’s behalf. Syria is a recent case study of how not to win a proxy war that merits closer examination before the United States embarks on another impulsive venture.
To threaten arming Ukraine would make sense as part of a hard-nosed negotiation with Moscow, or as a way to deter Russia from arming insurgent groups in other conflict zones where the United States is involved militarily, like Afghanistan. But there seems to be no such strategic purpose here; senior administration officials simply want to give Ukraine missiles.
Should the Javelin plan go through, the United States will have wasted its potential future leverage against a geopolitical adversary by burning one of the few cards it holds for a political gesture of limited value. If the Trump administration sees the conflict in Ukraine as part of a new Cold War, it should think harder about how it plans to win it. Empty signals or a few missiles will not prevail against this kind of adversary, and they’re not a smart way to help Ukraine, either.
Michael Kofman is a global fellow at the Wilson Center and a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute.