To arm Ukraine, or not to arm Ukraine? That is the question currently being debated around the world.
Reports indicate that the Obama administration is rethinking its position on sending lethal and non-lethal military assistance – i.e. anti-tank missiles, armoured vehicles and secure radios – to the Kiev government to help it fight pro-Russian separatists in the east.
Since the reports surfaced, the issue of arming Ukraine has dominated headlines with several influential figures wading into the argument. Last week, a group of US policymakers, including former Pentagon officials and high-ranking military commanders, voiced their support for sending weapons and other military equipment to the Ukrainian army.
Assisting Ukraine is consistent with the search for a peaceful solution said the policymakers, which included James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe. The theory goes that providing defensive capabilities to the Ukrainians would allow them to ‘inflict significant costs’ on the Russian military, effectively deterring further aggression.
Unusually for US politics, several Republicans and Democrats have come together to call on the Obama administration to increase support for Kiev. John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, along with several other lawmakers called for the US to ‘supply Ukraine with the means to defend itself’.
Ashton Carter, Obama’s choice for the top job at the Pentagon, also signalled during his confirmation hearing last week that he would support arming Ukraine. He said he would ‘very much incline’ to sending lethal arms, his stance possibly reflecting a wider shift of opinion in US national security circles.
Support for sending weapons to Ukraine has gained traction in recent weeks since the breakdown of a fragile ceasefire signed in September between Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels. NATO says Russia continues to supply the separatists with heavy weapons, unmanned systems, air defence technology and even troops. Outgunned and outmatched, the poorly-equipped Ukrainians are continuing to lose ground.
The conflict in the east has now raged for almost a year with UN estimates putting the death toll at around 5,000.
Unsurprisingly, Russia is not pleased about the prospect of possible US intervention. A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry said the supply of Western weapons will only escalate the conflict in the south-east and ‘also threaten the security of Russia, the territory of which has been shelled several times from the Ukrainian side’.
Last week saw a flurry of diplomatic activity with US Secretary of State John Kerry visiting Kiev, NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels to discuss the conflict, and peace talks taking place in Paris between the respective political leaders of France, Germany and Ukraine.
However outside the US, support for sending military equipment to Ukraine is almost non-existent. The UK, France and Germany are just three countries that have openly opposed any bid to arm the Ukrainians, potentially creating divisions between the US and Europe. British defence secretary Michael Fallon says more emphasis has to be placed on training and supplying non-lethal equipment.
So if the US decided to send defensive weapons and other equipment to Ukraine, what could it include and, importantly, would it make a difference? Probably the most controversial piece of equipment that the US could supply is light anti-armour weapons. If these were to come from the US inventory, it would likely be a weapon such as the shoulder-fired M72 Light Anti-Tank Weapon (LAW).
The LAW is lightweight, cheap and relatively easy to use, making it ideal for quick deployment to the under-equipped (and inexperienced) Ukrainians. The slightly bigger AT4 anti-tank weapon, which has seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan, is also a possible contender.
The US could also send some of its large inventory of armoured Humvees or stored mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles to Ukraine to enhance troop protection.
Since the drawdown from Afghanistan, the US military has looked to sell thousands of MRAPs that are considered surplus to requirement. MRAPs have been effective in Iraq and Afghanistan where improvised explosive devices were the weapon of choice for the enemy, but how they would hold up in Eastern Ukraine is another matter.
Ukrainian forces could also utilise counter-battery radar, a capability that allows forces to identify where artillery and rockets have been fired from and fire back on those positions. Artillery and rocket fire is one of the biggest killers in the Ukraine conflict (reportedly up to 70% of casualties are caused by shelling), with the weapons indiscriminately hitting residential areas as well as military positions.
One example of this radar is the AN/TPQ-37 Firefinder Weapon Locating System, a small trailer-mounted radar that can be towed by a truck. The AN/TPQ-37 can locate up to ten different weapon systems in just a few seconds at a maximum range of 50km, generally beyond the range of most artillery and rocket systems. It will determine the projectiles point of origin and relay that information to fire support teams that can counter incoming fire.
While not being war-winning capabilities, these type of systems would give the Ukrainians a significant boost when fighting separatists.
Nevertheless, no matter how good the weaponry is, it is useless if the soldiers are not well-trained and well-disciplined. You only have to look at the complete meltdown of the Iraqi Army, with its state-of-the-art Abrams tanks, Humvees and weaponry supplied by the US, to realise this.
Sending weapons could also escalate the conflict, with Russia (in classic Cold War terms) seeing the escalation as a zero-sum game where any gain on the Ukrainian side is seen as a loss for the separatists, sparking yet more arms supplies from Russia. Syria provides an example of what happens when Russia supplies one side (Assad) and the US the other (Free Syrian Army) – the result has been a long and protracted bloody civil war.
There is no easy answer, but rushing headlong into arming Ukraine is not likely to end the conflict anytime soon and could have the opposite effect of prolonging what has already been a violent conflict.