US antitank missiles risk escalating the Ukrainian conflict

US antitank missiles risk escalating the Ukrainian conflict

The recent delivery of US antitank missiles to Ukraine risks escalating the ongoing conflict with Russian-backed forces in the east of the country. If not accompanied by a concrete strategy, US support also risks driving a wedge between Ukraine and the EU, generating weaknesses which Moscow can then exploit.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has long been subject to intense debate. There are differences of opinion about what the level of Western assistance should be and how that assistance would be viewed by Russia and its affiliated forces in eastern Ukraine. The recent delivery of Javelin antitank missiles from the US is something that Ukraine’s pro-European President Petro Poroshenko has repeatedly lobbied for. This is in spite of worries that Moscow would view such support as an unnecessary act of aggression. Defence publication IHS Jane’s noted concerns over these missiles, namely how they can be effectively used without proper training, and the import bureaucracy associated with such sensitive deliveries.

Russia is likely to view the delivery as a message of direct support for Ukraine from Western powers. From Moscow’s political perspective, the West is interfering with and violating the sovereignty of Russia’s close neighbour. Russia considers Ukraine part of its ‘near abroad’, the cluster of post-Soviet states over which Moscow seeks to exert influence. Ukraine is thus a necessary component of Russia’s survival as a state in the twenty-first century.

If the Ukrainian military uses the Javelin missiles to lethal effect against pro-Russian separatists, Moscow may be forced to respond. The risk of escalation is high in a conflict that has already exposed serious divisions between the West and Russia. This is the darkest chapter in their relations since the end of the Cold War.

The perils of escalation

The use of Javelin missiles by the Ukrainian military is unlikely to alter the course of the war. It will not push Russia out of Crimea and the Donbas, the two war-torn regions in question. Russia retains a distinct advantage in its use of force in both regions and has greater defense capabilities than the Ukrainian armed forces.

Yet, such reinforcements serve as a morale-booster for Ukraine’s soldiers. Kiev will make sure to give this much media coverage to keep the spirits of the general population high. Moscow’s response is harder to predict, although retaliation to any loss of life at the hands of those missiles would likely be severe.

The perils of escalation, like many things in the Ukraine conflict and other Russian confrontations with the West, come from miscalculation. On the one hand, an Atlantic Council report on US’ engagement with Ukraine notes that the missile delivery will increase Ukraine’s ability to inflict damage on pro-Russian forces. On the other hand, faced with an emboldened Ukrainian military, Russian President Vladimir Putin may feel compelled to act. A US-backed Ukraine is likely to heighten Moscow’s sense of danger around the survival of the motherland and its ‘near abroad’.

With that said, the perception of escalation by a Western-backed government in Kiev may be more powerful than the reality. It is highly possible that the Kremlin activates a disinformation and propaganda campaign designed to frame the conflict as a civilisational struggle. The vehicle for such a campaign would be Russia’s state-backed international television network, Russia Today. Within such a campaign, the rhetoric would be framed around the need for all Russian speakers wherever they are to do their patriotic duty and preserve their Russophone identity at any cost.

Ukraine’s future geopolitical orientation

For Putin, there are benefits to not escalating in eastern Ukraine. In one way, a frozen conflict in Ukraine is a boon to Russia’s foreign policy strategy. The ongoing territorial dispute has left the nation in a sort of geopolitical limbo and will stall any efforts at Euro-Atlantic integration. As it is, eastern Ukraine’s fate is similar to Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. It means that Ukraine is unable to effectively apply for NATO and EU membership and move closer to the West.

The arrival of Javelin missiles may only prolong this frozen conflict if the delivery is not accompanied by a concrete strategy. Both countries will be seeking a political settlement and a return to the Minsk accords, the protocol ceasefire agreed in September 2014. Overall the Normandy Four (Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France) will be keen to disband the regional people’s republics and reintegrate them with the rest of the country.

The other concern about the sale comes not from Moscow, but from Brussels. Brussels has been cautious and hesitant to take a more confrontational stance in the Ukrainian conflict and views strategic dialogue with Russia as vitally important. The US is in a stronger position to take a more proactive stance by aligning itself with the Ukrainian military. Contrarily, Germany, France, and the Central and Eastern European member states of the EU are much closer to Russia for both economic and energy security.

The sale of the missiles may ultimately cause Ukraine to become closer to the US and not the EU. This is dangerous in the long term and an ineffective policy for the transatlantic community. In order to most effectively utilize the Javelin missiles, Ukraine will need continued support from both the US and the EU, combined with a diplomatic and political solution. Any fracture over Ukraine on both sides of the Atlantic will only play into Russia’s hands and efforts to exploit a divided West.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.