The State Department says the U.S. will provide Ukraine with “enhanced defensive capabilities” to protect itself against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. What this means, according to news reports, is that the U.S. is finally prepared to help Ukraine’s military punch back in a murky conflict cooked up by Putin. American weapons going to Ukraine will include Javelin anti-tank missiles and sniper rifles.
You may be surprised to learn there still is a conflict in eastern Ukraine. Indeed there is, with reports of intensified shelling in recent days, though an ostensible cease-fire has been in place for more than two years. Violence there has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014 and driven 1.5 million people from their homes.
Putin is the scheming villain responsible for splintering Ukraine as part of his ambition to reassert Russian power. In 2014, he waltzed into Crimea (there is no better verb to describe his actions). Putin seized and annexed that vital region of Ukraine in the wake of Ukrainian political upheaval. He followed up by orchestrating the uprising in eastern Ukraine, intentionally destabilizing a country that had dreams of joining the European Union and NATO.
President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia but did little else after Putin took the Crimean Peninsula in what was the first big European land grab since World War II. Obama decided that providing lethal weapons to Ukraine would accomplish little but antagonize Putin. Yet refusing to arm Ukraine had the opposite effect: It emboldened Putin. Obama’s hesitance is one reason why Russia-backed rebels control eastern Ukraine today.
Trump, who generally sees himself as an active defender of U.S. interests, has his own problems figuring out Putin. The president at times sounds strangely enamored with the Russian strongman. Certainly Trump’s not the first American leader to underestimate Putin, but he’s the first to sound admiring of a foreign aggressor whose government meddled in an American election.
U.S. officials have been signaling new support for providing Ukraine with arms. The point is not to encourage an escalation of fighting or draw Russia into direct confrontation with the United States but to make Russian interference in Ukraine more costly. “Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor since it is their own territory where the fighting is happening,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said in Kiev in August.
Javelin missiles are tank killers. The separatists possess Russian armored vehicles. Are Russian soldiers fighting alongside the separatists? The Russian government insists it is not directly involved, but it’s interesting to hear the concerned tone of Moscow’s reaction to America providing arms. “The American weapons can lead to more victims in the neighboring country, and we couldn’t stay indifferent to that,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.
Will that Russian reaction translate into a more lethal conflict? Yes. But war in Ukraine is a reality, and a West that flinches from the prolonged Russian incursion will only please Putin.
The bottom line is that Putin’s meddling in the affairs of other states won’t stop unless he is challenged. Trump has done that. Ukraine’s ability to fight back against the separatists has been hampered by a lack of firepower. Now it will get some. Now Ukraine can punch back.
By Chicago Tribune's Editorial Board