Russian Aggression in Ukraine: Is There a Solution?

By Megan Rutter
Contributing Writer
October 20th, 2016

In the first 24 hours of October, Russian-backed militants violated the 2015 Minsk II ceasefire over 50 times in eastern Ukraine. This conflict is no closer to resolution, and further action by the United States and the European Union is essential. As current sanctions have failed to stop Russian aggression in Ukraine, the United States, in partnership with the European Union, needs to provide further lethal defensive weaponry, including Soviet-style antiaircraft technology and antitank missiles, and increase its military support and training to Ukraine. These actions will deter further aggression by Russia and provide leverage for Ukraine in future talks. The entire global community has a responsibility to undertake these actions to enforce international law and protect state sovereignty.

Russian incursions threaten both the democratic and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Russia continues to disobey international law, set forth in the United Nations Charter Article 2(4), in spite of growing economic sanctions and global disapproval. Russia has also continued to violate the very cease-fire agreements it signed.

So far, U.S.and a E.U. efforts to strengthen Ukraine internally have failed to end the conflict. The United States and Ukraine have been diplomatic allies since Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the United States has provided economic, anti-corruption, diplomatic, and humanitarian aid, as well as security training. Since 2015, the United States has also been training the Ukrainian military in methods to protect and defend itself against Russian artillery. Further, the United States has provided HMMWVs, night vision googles, radar, and other non-lethal equipment to Ukraine since 2014.

Currently before Congress is the “Stability and Democracy for Ukraine Act” or “STAND for Ukraine Act.” This act restates the U.S. position not to recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, to expand sanctions on Russian companies, and to counter Russian propaganda in bordering nations. Importantly, it also allows for lethal weaponry support to Ukraine, with funds already established in the 2016 defense budget. This budget allocates $50 million for lethal defensive weaponry support to Ukraine, if activated. This allocation would be enough to purchase 324 Javelin anti-tank systems. While this is not enough to counter the vastly larger military power of Russia, it would be enough to defuse current border conflicts, deter future action, and send the message to Russia that the United States is serious about supporting Ukraine. The bill still needs to be approved by the Senate and the President, but is a necessary step the U.S. government must take.

The Ukrainian army is larger and more powerful than it has ever been, and providing it with lethal defensive weaponry now would further bolster its strength. The multilateral support and training by the United States that has been ongoing since 2014 has adequately prepared the Ukrainian military to handle modern lethal weaponry. The primary goal of the new policy would be to send Ukraine all available Soviet-style weaponry from U.S. and E.U. countries, but the equipment could also include more modern antiaircraft and antitank missiles. The Ukrainian military is already well equipped to utilize the Soviet-style weaponry and could be trained on more modern NATO standardized weapons. These weapons, combined with the continued training of the military on combat skills and organization, would allow the Ukrainian military to counter any future border scuffles.

With U.S. and U.N. help, Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against future Russian attacks would increase, and it would become a stronger player at the negotiation table. Increasing the military and bargaining power of Ukraine also increases the cost of potential conflict for Russia, making moves toward a diplomatic resolution more likely. A show of global support and strength, through further arming and training of the Ukrainian military, could deter any future demonstrations of force by the Russians. The threat of a U.S. and NATO-backed retaliation would be too great.

The United States needs to be the leader on this issue, but it should not stand alone. With the United States taking the first steps, allies should be persuaded to participate in, and support the mission. France and Germany have taken on diplomatic roles in the conflict, but have failed to produce meaningful and lasting change. These nations, along with the United States, have to take concrete, action-oriented steps forward to protect Ukraine.

Critics will say that this action will incite total war, but this is wrong. The U.S. has been assisting, supplying, and training the Ukrainian military for years. The proposed lethal weaponry is intended for defensive use only and is in reaction to threats by the Russian-backed militants. This increased military support and training would provide Ukraine with further ability to defend itself. This option is the best chance to increase the cost of the conflict enough to move Russia toward a diplomatic resolution.

Would this plan harm U.S.-Russia cooperation elsewhere? The rational answer is that it should not. Governments get involved in conflicts when it is in the best interest of the nation to do so, and they deal with those issues with consideration for all aspects. Any cooperation between Russia and the United States will always depend on where and whether or not the two have shared interests. The more important question is whether getting involved further in this conflict is in the U.S. interest. The answer is yes. Resolution is nowhere in sight and this conflict has several negative potential consequences, including full-scale war. Through the Budapest Memorandum, the United States and Russia vowed to protect the sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine. Russia has violated this commitment and the U.S. has a duty to respond and assist Ukraine toward a resolution.

The international community has a responsibility to protect the sovereignty of nations, and the United States has the strongest voice to initiate further action. Russia has proved it can and will take advantage of a weak Ukraine. The United States and the European Union can no longer stand by and allow Ukraine to remain defenseless against direct attack. Ukraine needs increased global military support to protect its sovereignty. With Western support, Ukraine can survive.

Megan Rutter is a first-year graduate student in Security Policy Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. She received a B.S. in Criminal Justice and Psychology from Northeastern University. She has previously interned with the US Attorney’s Office in Boston, MA. Megan Rutter can be reached at Mrutter@gwu.edu.

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