As of late last week, the White House faced “bipartisan pressure from both sides of the Capitol to provide weapons to Ukraine,” though the pressure fell on fertile ground – the position already enjoys some support within the Obama administration.
Indeed, this is not, strictly speaking, an issue that falls neatly along partisan lines. The position enjoys the backing of some of Congress’ most right-wing members, as evidenced by Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) bogus claim yesterday that the U.S. has a “treaty obligation” to provide Ukraine with weapons. But at a Capitol Hill press conference on this last week, White House allies like Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) were also on hand.
Few, however, have made the case the way Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) did last week.
At the Munich Security Conference, described as one of Europe’s largest gatherings to discuss international security issues, the Republican senator appeared on a panel and delivered an impassioned appeal to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an opponent of arming Ukrainian forces. Graham said Merkel is “making a mistake,” and argued:
“The United States Congress is beginning to form a consensus – Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal – that it is in our national security interest, and the interest of the world, to stand by Ukraine politically, economically and give them the defensive capability to counter what Mr. Lavrov says is not happening. […]“I don’t know how this ends if you give [Ukrainian officials] defensive capability, but I know this: I will feel better because when my nation was needed to stand up to the garbage and stand by freedom, I stood by the freedom.”
Graham added that Ukrainians “may die” and “may lose,” but the West should provide military support to the country anyway.
He’ll “feel better.”
This position may very well enjoy broad support in Congress, and given Ash Carter’s confirmation hearing last week, it may even enjoy President Obama’s backing. And at first blush, I can appreciate the appeal – Putin has picked a dangerous fight; Ukraine has asked for additional support from the West, and while we’re hardly prepared to intervene directly with U.S. forces, we can support Ukraine’s efforts. It’s a policy that allows the U.S. to confront Russian aggression indirectly, effectively asking Ukrainians to do the bulk of the work on their own.
But Kevin Drum made a compelling case the other day that the move is always a feel-good tactic, but all this is “harder than it sounds.”
Generally speaking, providing arms is a very long-term strategy. We have to get the arms over to Ukraine. We have to train the Ukrainians to use them effectively. The Ukrainian army needs to up its game. This takes at least a year, and probably a good deal more. In the meantime, the risk is that Russia will react to the flow of arms by deciding that it needs to stop pussyfooting around and just send in its own troops before it’s too late.Unfortunately, Ukraine has been an inept kleptocracy for over a decade, and that makes them a lousy ally. We can provide them with arms pretty easily, but training them to use those arms effectively is a whole different story. We learned that in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, and if we go down this road we might just learn it all over again in Ukraine.
If you’re thinking the congressional debate on this has been a little thin, you’re not the only one. “Proxy war with Russia” is one of those alarming phrases that needs to be carefully considered, and given Lindsey Graham’s track record of always being wrong about nearly everything, his spirited endorsement for the position does not inspire confidence. The fact that one of his principal arguments is that arming Ukrainian forces would make him “feel better” doesn’t help either.
We don’t know if a full-scale Russian invasion would be the result of Western intervention, and we don’t know how we and the world would respond if Putin did exactly that. We also have no idea whether military aid would improve conditions and/or how long progress might take.
If you missed it, Rachel explored this last week with Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Forces in Europe.