The Ukrainian Dilemma

Put aside, for a moment, thoughts about the latest brutal murder of an innocent civilian by ISIL (if you can), the latest car bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ongoing mayhem in Yemen, Libya and Nigeria.

Think, instead, about Ukraine. That country has not figured prominently in the foreign policy conversations of recent months, but in the last few days it has once again soared to first place. It’s a boom time for cartographers as a global tinderbox explodes and maps of Eastern Europe are suddenly more relevant than at any time since an Iron Curtain descended on the continent. Where is Donetsk? What is a Volnovokha?

To say that the Cold War between Russia and the West is back is a misstatement. The Cold War in Europe was a standoff between the superpowers in that, for all the “brushfire wars” elsewhere — in Korea, Congo, Vietnam — war did not break out in Europe. Not to belittle the brutal suppression of liberal movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but those were suppressions of dissent within the Soviet Union’s area of hegemony. As such, the U.S. and its allies decided to stand aside. They would provide the courageous dissidents with moral support but not material backing. The nuclear peril of attempting more than that was too forbidding.

Not so in Ukraine. What is going on there is a shooting war between pro-Russian and pro-Western groups, with material sponsorship from the outside powers. More than 5,000 people have been killed since the Russian annexation of Crimea in April, and the toll rises every day.

A ceasefire agreement reached several months ago fell apart over the weekend amid mutual accusations of bad faith. On Monday, fighting raged in eastern Ukraine as the pro-Russian separatists aimed artillery fire at government forces holding a strategic rail terminal. Both sides are talking about large-scale military mobilization.

And now that the Moscow-backed rebel offensive threatens to seize more territory for the creation of a new status quo, or a new state already dubbed “New Russia,” the Obama administration is openly considering an infusion of defensive weapons.

As of Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama was reportedly still undecided about whether to step up support for Ukraine. But pressure to do so is mounting. High officials are already counseling intervention. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey were said to be receptive to the idea; NATO military commander Gen. Philip M. Breedlove is already known to be in favor of such action, as is outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

A panel of eight former senior U.S. officials was slated to release a special report on Monday that could give the current officials the push they need and are probably waiting for.

A preview of the report in the media said they recommend that Washington commit $3 billion in defensive arms and equipment to Ukraine, including anti-armor missiles and reconnaissance drones. The report is expected to weigh heavily in national security councils.

“The West needs to bolster deterrence in Ukraine by raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive,” the report says. “That requires providing direct military assistance — in far larger amounts than provided to date and including lethal defensive arms.”

No one relishes the thought of making Ukraine the site of a costly and dangerous East-West confrontation. But as administration officials have pointed out, it is Russia that has already launched the confrontation. The Putin government has repeatedly violated an agreement reached in September that called for an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign forces and peacekeeping arrangements for the Russia-Ukraine frontier. In recent weeks, Russia has supplied the separatists with a large number of heavy weapons, including T-80 and T-72 tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems, artillery and armored personnel carriers, according to Western officials.

In short, while the ceasefire was supposed to be implemented, Ukraine was being outgunned. Much of the Ukrainian weaponry is outdated. Most of the anti-armor missiles, for example, are least two decades old and out of commission, according to expert assessments. The abovementioned report says that Javelin antitank missiles should be considered for bolstering the country’s defense capability.

We certainly hope that a wider war can be averted through intensified diplomatic efforts. John Kerry’s mission to Ukraine and Germany, which includes meetings with Western allies and with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, may yet bear fruit.

Between jawing and warring there is also still the avenue of sanctions. Current economic sanctions are said to be hurting the Russian economy, though obviously not enough to make Vladimir Putin back off.

Washington can do more to ratchet up the price of Russian aggression. As David J. Kramer of the McCain Institute has suggested, Gazprom, the Russian energy company, could be added to the sanctions list. Exclusion of Russia from the Swift global system for processing payments would cripple its banking and finance. And senior Russian officials could be added to the Western visa ban and asset-freeze lists.

But the time for relying on peaceful measures alone may well have passed. Washington’s reluctance to become embroiled in a new conflict zone in Eastern Europe is understandable.

But this is not Iraq or Afghanistan. This is not about heady regime change. This is about giving Ukraine what we could not give to the Hungarians or the Czechs — a fighting chance. If the United States fails to do that, all Europe will be at risk.