So you might have heard that the US sent some guns to Ukraine this past week. No? Well we sent them some anti-tank weapons (a javelin if you ever played CoD, or, yknow, have served in the military) and a few sniper rifles. *wow orlando that’s pretty specific why those two things* I WILL TELL YOU, DEAR READER.
Back in February 2014, Ukraine overthrew its pro-Russian kleptocrat of a leader, Viktor Yanukovych, in favor of the pro-Western Petro Poroshenko (although it took a few months and there was a stand-in leader in the meantime). This displeased Putin, who really very much enjoyed access to the Black Sea by means of Crimea and having Ukraine as a buffer between Mother Russia and NATO (whose very specific mission is to promote… European safety? (defend Europe from Russia) And also catch pirates).
So, Putin, suffering at home and badly needing a win abroad, did what anyone would do: he (sent a whole bunch of “little green men” to invade and capture Crimea and Eastern Ukraine) denied any involvement in the totally unrelated capture of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine by totally-not-Russian militants, a conflict which has killed 10,000 people in 3 years.
So the US had a problem. Obviously, we support Ukrainians! We love democracy! But do we love it enough to give the Ukrainians guns and anger the Russians? Although Obama favored sending Non-Lethal Assistance™ like blankets and medicine, his Secretary of State, John Kerry, favored sending our friends a few guns. Ultimately, the US chose not to arm Ukraine…
(…I usually stay away from editorializing, but I did a lot of research and work on this topic in 2014, so if you’ll allow me a moment to geek out…)
…and was made exactly the right move. A lot of people were quick to compare 2014 Putin to 1938 Hitler: we had to deter him immediately to stop this warrantless aggression. The difference is, Hitler was in command of a rising power that hadn’t yet reached its peak – he was testing the waters for a campaign to ultimately take control of all of Europe. Russia in 2014 was an ailing power, backed into a corner after two and a half decades of NATO expansion. Despite some NATO/EU aspirations, Ukraine was safely in the Russian sphere – until Putin’s puppet was overthrown in a coup and replaced with a pro-Western democrat. Putin attacked to secure existential geostrategic interests – access to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol and a buffer to NATO. Thus, arming Ukraine would not have deterred Putin – the stakes were too high to bear a loss. Where Hitler struck to see what would happen if he acted, Putin struck out of fear of what would happen if he didn’t. So arming Ukraine would only have prolonged the conflict and resulted in more loss of life for ultimately the same result, because regardless of the fact that we have more resources, Russia was willing to lay way more on the line than we were.
So what changed? (Spoiler: It’s Trump.) Anti-tank weapons and sniper rifles are, in most cases, defensive weapons, a move meant to signal that this is not preparation for an offensive war on Russia, but to strengthen Ukraine’s defense. Russia has already stated that this may force an escalation of the conflict. But, I wager that ultimately, very little will change. People will continue to die at the same rate because Russia will not commit any further resources to the cause. For one, they have what they want. But two, Putin knows that Trump won’t REALLY cross him. He’s been lukewarm on NATO, hard on the EU, and has yet to say a bad word about Russia. So in a way, Trump is uniquely poised to send the Ukrainians lethal assistance, in a way that Obama never could because of the nature of relations at the time. But time will tell. #fpf