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19th Aug 2022

Arms to Ukraine debate divides Western allies, experts

  • Nato satellite images showing Russian armour in Ukraine last year (Photo: nato.int)

Estonia has called on the West to arm Ukraine, but the question remains divisive both inside Europe and in the US.

Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves told media on Tuesday (3 February) that Ukraine will cease to be unless its new allies intervene in the conflict.

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“If we take into account the fact that Ukraine is defending itself with 20 to 30-year old weapons, it's clear that Ukraine will be the one that loses the war,” he said.

“I agree with the recently-published conclusions of the think tank Brookings, according to which the United States and Nato must provide military assistance to Ukraine or else Ukraine will be destroyed”.

He was referring to a paper by eight former US diplomats and defence chiefs.

The group said the US should give Ukraine $1 billion a year in military aid over the next three years, including modern anti-tank missiles.

It also said former Communist countries, such as Poland and the Baltic states, should furnish weapons because their arsenals contain former Soviet systems which are more compatible with Ukraine’s capabilities.

The debate will intensify this week when US secretary of state John Kerry visits Kiev and vice-president Joe Biden comes to Brussels.

It will also come up when Nato defence ministers meet in Brussels on Thursday and when US and European policymakers meet in Germany for the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in an interview with German daily Die Welt, out on Thursday, said: “We still need a lot of military, technical, and specialist help to improve the fighting strength of the Ukrainian army in its resistance of Russian aggression.”

But for its part, the US state department said no decision has been made.

“Obviously, there are a range of views and opinions within the [US] administration. That’s why we have internal discussions … But our policy [on giving non-lethal assistance only] hasn’t changed and a decision hasn’t been made to do that [send arms]”, state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told press in Washington on Wednesday.

Merkel says No

Inside Europe, France, Germany, and Finland in recent days ruled out bilateral assistance.

“Germany will not send Ukraine any deadly, lethal weapons ... we are focusing on a diplomatic solution”, chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday.

“We have no intention of delivering weapons at this stage to Ukraine," French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told media on Wednesday.

EU diplomats are instead in talks on expanding their Russia blacklist over the recent escalation in fighting, which, according to the UN, has claimed 224 civilian lives in the past three weeks alone.

Diplomatic sources indicate the new list will contain around 15 names and five entities, including Russian decision-makers as well as their agents in Ukraine.

EU leaders, at their next summits in February and March, will also debate further economic sanctions, amid opposition to the idea from several EU states, notably Hungary and Greece.

Meanwhile, the arms to Ukraine question has divided the expert community as well as Western chancelleries.

Experts divided

Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German diplomat who chairs the Munich security meeting, wrote in an op-ed in the Financial Times that unless the West intervenes the “violence will go on”.

But Jeremy Shapiro, a former US official who also works for Brookings, said it would lead to Russian escalation and would give the Kremlin a propaganda victory.

“The Russian regime has defined the struggle in Ukraine as part of an existential battle against American imperialism ... American provision of arms would lend credence to that view and increase the Russian government’s freedom of action at home”.

Samuel Greene, a Russia analyst at King’s College London, noted: “the price of arming Ukraine is likely to be a rupture in trans-Atlantic solidarity, and therefore the loss of the greatest asset the West has had in this fight to date”.

Spearhead force

For their part, the Nato defence chiefs will on Thursday in any case adopt decisions likely to prompt Russian criticism.

They are expected to seek troop commitments for a new “spearhead” force to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic region.

They are also set to establish new command-and-control facilities in the Baltic states and in Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria, involving extra US military personnel on Russia’s borders.

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