Actually, There's a Pretty Good Argument for Suspending Military Aid to Ukraine | Opinion

With Washington, DC preoccupied by public impeachment hearings and presidential quid-pro quos, there is a risk the country's foreign policymakers will lose perspective on the critical issue of U.S. security assistance. $400 million of military aid to Ukraine may be dominating the headlines, but there has been a shocking lack of discussion on whether that aid is in any way beneficial to U.S. national security.

Impeachment drama aside, the answer is no. U.S. security aid to Kiev is likely to exacerbate a diplomatic stalemate in Eastern Ukraine and give false hope to the Ukrainian government that Washington sees Ukrainian and U.S. national security as inextricably linked.

Eastern Ukraine is Europe's deadliest conflict in a quarter of a century. Roughly 13,000 people have died in the violence. While far less intense than its peak in 2014 and 2015, barely a week goes by without the frontline separating Russian-supported separatists and Ukrainian government forces experiencing shelling on both sides of the divide. Relations between Moscow and Kiev have never been worse; although the two large neighbors recognize that the war will never be won militarily, both remain skeptical the other can be trusted to make moves toward any type of peace.

Russia's behavior in Ukraine has been negative and indeed predatory throughout, motivated in part by a widespread concern in the Kremlin that the West is trying to weaken its power, contract its freedom of movement and pull Ukraine out of its sphere of influence. U.S. military support to Kiev, amounting to approximately $1.5 billion since 2014, has merely heightened Russia's sense of insecurity and convinced it to double down on its support of the separatists. The war in Eastern Ukraine is a classic case of Newton's Third Law of Physics, where every action taken by Washington on behalf of the Ukrainian military has the equal and opposite reaction of Moscow providing more aid to its separatist proxies. The result: slow-motion, trench warfare with neither party any closer to victory.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated throughout the war that he will not allow separatist forces to be defeated militarily. A military triumph by Kiev is to be avoided, however painful it may be. From the Kremlin's vantage point, a separatist defeat would be the most consequential geopolitical catastrophe for Russia and her strategic position in the 21st century—and a personal humiliation for Putin, the man most associated with Moscow's foreign policy in Ukraine. Moscow has infinitely more to lose in Ukraine than Washington ever will, which means the Russians are willing to risk far more. They have illustrated this through their actions, including reinforcing the separatists when they were in danger of losing ground to the Ukrainian army, and also devoting the money, manpower, and bureaucratic attention to setting up alternative governing authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk.

When one combines the importance with which Moscow views Ukraine for its own security and geographic proximity, Russia has—and will forever retain—escalation dominance in this conflict. No amount of U.S. military aid to Kiev will permit Ukraine to defeat the separatists or compensate for the arms and equipment Moscow is willing to provide. Policymakers in Washington who refuse to accept this hard reality are engaging in bad policy and moral hazard, drawing the United States deeper into a war that neither threatens its national security nor improves a U.S.-Russia relationship in desperate need of some stability.

Rather than sending more javelins, sniper rifles, and ammunition to Kiev, Washington needs to encourage the Ukrainian and Russian political leadership to carry on with the white-knuckled diplomatic spadework necessary for de-escalation and, ultimately, a peaceful resolution of the five-year war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky could very well be the man to push that hard but necessary diplomacy forward. Elected on a platform of ending the hostilities in the east, Zelensky has spent his valuable political capital chipping away at the problem by successfully negotiating a prisoner exchange with Moscow and stating his willingness to accept political decentralization reform in separatist-controlled Donbas. Ukrainian government and separatist forces have just completed a third mutual pullback from two Donetsk villages along the line of contact. And next month, Zelensky and Putin will meet directly, the first time since 2016 that a Ukrainian and Russian leader has participated in the diplomatic process known as the Normandy Format.

Supporting these peace overtures should be the U.S. policy in Ukraine, not complicating the very resolution Washington claims to want by sending Kiev military aid the Russians will simply match or exceed.

Washington should be far more restrained in where it delivers military aid. And in cases such as Ukraine where few—if any—U.S. national security interests are threatened, military aid should be suspended without hesitation.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​