In our last issue of 2017, we reported on the front page that the U.S. State Department had approved an export license for Ukraine to buy certain types of light weapons and small arms from U.S. manufacturers. That decision, announced to the public on December 20 (and to Congress a week earlier) came several months after the State Department and the Pentagon had proposed to the White House that the U.S. help Ukraine defend itself by providing lethal weapons. Two days later came updated news that the administration of President Donald Trump had approved a plan to provide lethal defensive weapons, including the Javelin anti-tank missiles that Ukraine had long sought.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on December 22 that the U.S. had decided to provide “enhanced defensive capabilities” to help Ukraine build its military long-term and deter further aggression. “U.S. assistance is entirely defensive in nature, and as we have always said, Ukraine is a sovereign country and has a right to defend itself,” she underscored.
A longtime supporter of Ukraine, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), commented: “President Trump’s reported decision to provide Javelin anti-tank munitions to Ukraine marks another significant step in the right direction and sends a strong signal that the United States will stand by its allies and partners as they fight to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. This decision is years overdue. … Providing Ukraine the capabilities it needs to deter and defend against further Russian aggression will contribute to creating more stable security conditions that are necessary for a peaceful resolution of this conflict. …providing defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine is not opposed to a peace in Ukraine – it is essential to achieving it.”
President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine wrote on Facebook: “American weapons in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers are not for offensive [purposes], but for a decisive rebuff of the aggressor, protection of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, as well as for effective self-defense.” Similarly, Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Valeriy Chaly posted: “Weakness encourages an aggressor. Force helps deter him and push him toward peace.”
Even Popular Mechanics commented on the decision, calling it “an audacious geopolitical step” and writing on January 2: “The Javelin is one of the deadliest anti-tank missiles ever designed and will bolster Ukraine’s defenses in its military showdown with Russia. The sale is aimed squarely at Russia’s large and powerful tank fleet.” After detailing the Javelin’s specs, the magazine noted: “Javelin missiles will offset Russia’s tank advantage. Highly mobile and concealable in forested and built-up areas, Javelin will present a serious challenge to Russian forces.”
Russia’s reaction was predictable: the U.S. decision will escalate the war and lead to new bloodshed; it is a signal that the U.S. will support a military solution to the Donbas war; etc. “The United States has crossed a line by announcing its intention to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine,” Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov said on December 23. He warned: “U.S. weapons are capable of leading to new casualties in our neighboring country, and we cannot remain indifferent to that.”
Well, Russia has hardly been indifferent to the war in Ukraine’s east. The U.S. has long said Moscow is providing arms and troops for the so-called separatists. In fact, back in June 2015 the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, referred to “combined Russian-separatist forces,” and in April 2016 Daniel B. Baer, U.S. ambassador to the OSCE Permanent Council, explained that the U.S. uses the wording “Russia-backed separatists” to indicate “the accurate relationship” or “Russian-led separatist fighters,” again, “to express accurately the connection between Russia and the fighters on the ground.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis explained that the U.S. role in Ukraine is not changing and Russia has no cause for concern. “As long as no one wants to invade Ukraine, hopefully it won’t have any big impact. They’re defensive weapons,” Mr. Mattis was quoted by RFE/RL as saying on December 29. Following up on those remarks, Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin on January 3 assured the world that the U.S.-supplied lethal weapons have “purely defensive purposes” and would be used only if the militants provoked government forces.
Most importantly, however, the provision of these weapons is a potential game-changer that raises the cost of Russia’s aggression and, as The Washington Post suggested, might lead Vladimir Putin “to consider cutting his losses in Donetsk and Luhansk.” The Post also called it “a worthy application of the ‘peace through strength’ principle of President Ronald Reagan.”