What will be the consequences of possible US military aid in Ukraine?
As things stand, relations between Russia and the West are strained almost to breaking point. Following allegations of Russian support for the separatist campaign in eastern Ukraine, vehemently denied by the Kremlin, economic sanctions have sparked a dramatic fall in oil prices and the rouble’s value.
In recent weeks, violence between pro-Russian separatists and government forces in eastern Ukraine has intensified significantly, as the storm clouds of an economic crisis gather over Moscow.
In light of the escalation of violence, an independent report published this week by eight former US officials has recommended that the US provide military assistance to the country to counter the separatist insurgency, “some of it lethal, but none of it offensive”.
The New York Times has reported that the United States is now reconsidering its policy on supplying weapons to Kiev, claiming that several senior US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey, are open to discussions on the matter.
But what does the US hope to achieve by bolstering Kiev’s military defences? Surely any such move to challenge the separatist campaign in Ukraine would only provoke Russia, placing further strains on East-West relations.
In the past, Russian president Vladimir Putin has not hesitated in admitting his disdain for Western policies towards Russia. In December 2014, he described what he perceived as a “policy of containment” in relation to economic sanctions, and has referred to the Ukrainian army as a “NATO Foreign Legion”.
If the US decides to supplement Ukraine’s government forces with lethal weapons, given Putin’s apparent lack of respect for Western diplomacy, what will prevent the Kremlin from providing similar military support to separatist rebels? Can the US and its allies afford to take such a risk?
Many now believe that the West has no other option.
“Should we not act more robustly,” reads the independent report, “we can expect to face further Russian incursions, possibly including attempts to redraw borders elsewhere and efforts to intimidate former Soviet states into accepting Russian dominance.”
In an impassioned article in the Guardian, British historian Timothy Garton Ash announced the failure of diplomatic methods in Ukraine: “Diplomacy’s time will come again, but it is not now.”
He added: “In the long run, Putin will lose. The people who will suffer most from his folly will be the Russians, not least those in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”
The humanitarian impact of violence in Ukraine is considerable and deeply troubling.
According to figures compiled by the UN, UNICEF and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are 921,240 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Ukraine, and around 600, 000 more have been forced out of the country as a result of the conflict.
The same sources state that between April 2014 and January 2015, 5,086 had been killed in the country, and that a further 10,948 had been wounded.
If US, and perhaps subsequently British military assistance can promise to force Russia’s hand, thereby instigating diplomatic negotiations and thus alleviating the developing humanitarian and economic crises which threaten the people of Ukraine and Russia, then action must be taken – and fast.