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Call to arm Ukraine misreads Russia’s response

Call to arm Ukraine misreads Russia's response

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As the latest round of peace talks aimed at putting an end to the crisis in Ukraine continues in Minsk, debate is growing in Washington about the virtues of providing Kiev with military equipment for its ongoing offensive against the pro-Russian rebels who control the country’s easternmost regions. Meanwhile, the fighting around Donetsk and Luhansk has been intensifying as both sides aim to secure extra ground prior to any territorial agreement being reached in Belarus.

The push to arm Ukraine with American arms, championed among others by Vice President Joe Biden and Senator John McCain, rests fundamentally on a misrepresentation of the mood in Russia and a mistaken reading of the Kremlin’s likely response. The tactic of plausible deniability upon which Moscow has relied since the start of the military conflict almost a year ago has gradually lost credibility as evidence of Russian military supplies to the rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk has mounted.

The informational offensive staged on state-run media may have largely succeeded in conditioning viewpoints within Russia and among the sizable Russian-speaking minorities in ex-Soviet republics, popularizing accusations of Western hypocrisy over Ukraine and contrasting Russia’s apparent defense of the right to self-determination in Crimea and the Donbass with the U.S.’s imperialist actions in the Middle East and beyond. In the West, among the audience targeted by Russia’s international English-language news agencies RT and Sputnik News, the push to spread the Kremlin’s version of events has been dismissed as an inept and overt effort at manipulation. And the small contingent within Russia that sees through those efforts and condemns Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine has grown more vocal as the economic repercussions of those actions for ordinary Russians continue to grow.

The West’s response to the crisis has succeeded, at Russia’s expense, in consolidating international support and forging a degree of solidarity among EU states, and this has been achieved largely through a focus on finding diplomatic solutions to the crisis and deploying economic measures to punish Russia. The former have been an outright failure: despite several rounds of talks, the military conflict has only become more entrenched and, aside from a brief de-escalation in early September, the death toll has continued to grow unabated. The series of economic sanctions imposed on Moscow by the U.S. and the EU, on the other hand, have combined with a rapid decline in global oil prices to severely weaken Russia’s economy and impact its citizens’ quality of life in ways that will only become apparent in the upcoming months. The level of domestic support for Vladimir Putin may remain high, but with further economic sanctions at its disposal the West can still ratchet up the pressure on Russia without resorting to military aid.

Shipping American anti-tank missiles, surveillance drones and other military equipment to bolster Ukraine’s campaign to regain control of its easternmost territories will not only preclude any prospect of an end to the fighting (far from backing down, Moscow will only increase its supplies to match) but serve as fuel for Russia’s consistent accusations of Western hypocrisy. The moral ground the West has gained in recent months will be dealt a serious blow if a decision to arm Kiev with American arms is reached. The reasoning behind the proposed policy is flawed: far from forcing Putin’s regime to negotiate, any Western move to strengthen Ukraine’s advance against the separatist insurgency is likely to increase Moscow’s backing for the two rump states on its border and only lend legitimacy to such a response in the eyes of a Russian public already conditioned to treat Western motives with cynicism.



Matthew Luxmoore

Matthew is a British-Polish journalist who has been covering the Ukrainian crisis since May 2014. He has reported from Ukraine and Russia for The Times, New Republic, Al Jazeera and Evening Standard, among others. Since October 2014 he has been based in Moscow working as a freelance reporter.