The White House is considering arming Ukrainian government forces fighting Russian-backed rebels as a way of defending against further incursions into the country. Kurt Volker, new U.S. special representative for Ukraine, told the BBC that the move would not change the balance of power in the region, but the Kremlin has already warned Washington not to proceed with such a decision.
During his first trip to the country since taking up his post on July 7, Volker revealed Tuesday that the Trump administration is considering supplying “defensive arms” to Ukrainian forces – an admission which has surprised many, given how reluctant the president has been to take any action that would be seen to punish the Kremlin since he took office.
Volker dismissed the argument that such a move would be seen as provocation towards Russia or could encourage Ukraine to go on the attack, calling such fears “flat out wrong.” Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, pointed out that Russia already has a huge military presence in the disputed territory, including more tanks than there are in the rest of western Europe.
“The Russians know they are very, very strong …and the Ukrainians know the Russians are very, very strong,” Volker told Radio Free Europe.
When asked about the possibility of sending arms to the Ukraine, a Department of Defense spokesperson told VICE News that “the United States has neither provided defensive weapons nor ruled out the option of doing so.”
In Moscow, the Kremlin warned Volker and his colleagues that any move to supply arms to Ukrainian troops would make a political solution to the war less likely — despite the fact that the Russian government is heavily involved in the conflict itself. “We have said on many occasions that any steps that would whip up tension at the disengagement line and generally provoke an already uneasy situation will only further distance us from settling this intra-Ukrainian issue,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday.
The conflict in Ukraine has been raging since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, and the subsequent outbreak of a pro-Russian insurgency in the eastern Donbass region served to inflame tensions. Earlier this week, Volker said the situation in Ukraine was better described as “hot war” rather than a “frozen conflict.” There is currently a fragile ceasefire in place in eastern Ukraine, but last week fighting intensified once again, and in one 24-hour period eight Ukrainian soldier were killed.
The UN estimates that, to date, over 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting – with more than 1.6 million displaced. The U.S. already provides some support to the Ukrainian military in the form of training and assistance. In return, the U.S. military receives intelligence about what it’s like to fight the modern-day Russian army.
Volker claims sending defensive weapons to Ukraine would reduce the number of casualties in the region rather than increase it, an idea backed up by Keir Giles, associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, who believes the move will have a “cooling effect on the conflict both directly and indirectly.”
“This is not going to influence whether Russia escalates or not,” Giles told VICE News. “Because they do it in their own time anyway, they turn up and down the military pressure on Ukraine like a dimmer switch to suit their own assessment of the political mood.”
Not everyone agrees. Vladislav Zubok, chair in international history at the London School of Economics, believes that sending arms to the Poroshenko government could see the relaunch of a Ukraine offensive against Luhansk and Donetsk – two major cities currently under Russian control – triggering possible Kremlin retaliation.
“I do not see how sending so-called ‘defensive weapons’ to the Ukraine now will help all of us bring both sides to a negotiating table,” Zubok told VICE News. “Unless the U.S. wants to have another little war, before peace can be brokered.”
Giles says the arrival of Volker is seen by most analysts as a positive step, because he is “highly experienced, knows the Russia problem and is not beholden to Russia in any way. He is an independent voice, and a realistic one.”
Given Trump’s apparent reluctance to order new sanctions against Russia over its actions in Crimea and its interference in the 2016 presidential election, it remains unclear what actual chance Volker has of persuading the administration to provide arms.
“The question now is how long Volker can keep up this realistic assessment of the situation for Ukraine, and whether he is going to be reigned in from DC,” cautioned Giles.