Mr. Putin undoubtedly feels that he can get away with it. No probable sanctions regime is going to hurt him enough to desist, because the really important and painful sanctions can only be imposed by Europe and Europe is already falling back into recession. That is not to say that the Europeans won’t do anything: Mrs. Merkel has made it clear that the unauthorized crossing of the aid convoy, much less Russian armor in regimental strength, would constitute a serious escalation and requires a serious response. But the domestic clamor prevent further damage to the German economy will certainly be heard in Berlin and limit the aggressiveness of the response. There is another consideration: in another three months, it is going to start getting cold in the North. As the Starks would say: “winter is coming”.
What is increasingly evident is that no sanctions regime short of complete isolation is likely to stop Russia from acting in what it considers to be the defense of their vital national interest. Ukraine is simply too important to them to allow the country to join the EU and NATO as the Baltic States did during a moment of Russian weakness. No amount of protestations from Brussels about peaceful intentions and good neighborliness are going convince the Russians. They remember perfectly well how the basket-case Weimar Republic was transformed into the murderously efficient Third Reich in just 5 years; and their own experience in reforming the disastrous Yeltsin era Russian military also shows how quickly the military balance of power can shift. Under the cover of the unconvincingly repetitive droning on peace coming from Brussels, the Europeans have twice dismembered Serbia, bombed Libya into a burnt cinder, and were keen on starting an air war over Syria until both the British Parliament and American Congress balked. At least, that is the interpretation of events in Russia.
Russia is not going to stop and neither the Europeans nor the Americans are going to step in militarily to save Kiev’s bacon. America is trying to avoid more messy conflicts (and failing as we’ll soon be back in Iraq) while Europe’s militaries are in pitiful shape for the most part. In any case, no one really wants to start a hot war with Russia. But that doesn’t mean that the West should sit idly by while the Ukrainians are dismembered. If the Russians are going to keep sending the separatists heavy weapons and “volunteers”, then the Ukrainian military is going to have supply difficulties: some of their most important military factories are located in the east, smack dab in the middle of the rebel zone. We may not want to fight a war for Ukraine, but we shouldn’t let them lose it for lack of beans and bullets.
Burning Down the House
President Franklin Roosevelt was faced with a similar quandary in 1939 and 1940. He wanted to support the French and British in their efforts to rearm for the war against Fascist Germany, but Congress had tied his hands with the various Neutrality Acta of 1930’s. Seeking to maintain the neutrality and isolation of the US, the legislature had passed laws that transport of personnel or articles, loans or credits to belligerents in a conflict. It was supposed to be an impartial measure, but the Luftwaffe wasn’t placing any orders with Boeing and North American, while the RAF certainly was. After Germany invaded Poland, however, President Roosevelt persuaded Congress to pass a cash-and-carry provision to modify the 1939 Neutrality Act, allowing belligerents to purchase American supplies for cash and carry then on their own bottoms. In a press conference, the President explained the program in a very homely fashion:
“Well, let me give you an illustration: Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.“(2)
Cash-and-Carry helped the Allies with their rearmament after a decade of defense budget cuts and ran through early 1941, by which time the British were running out of cash. President Roosevelt recognized that this assistance was not going to be enough against the Nazis, so he pursued Congress to pass the Lend Lease Act. Lend Lease equipment was used up and most of it went unpaid for, but that didn’t matter because the boys using it up were fighting Nazis, rather than obliging American boys to do it. It was a critical measure that helped resupply the British Army after the Dunkirk evacuation, and it helped resupply the Red Army after the disastrous retreats of 1941. It is a testament to the industrial power and war planning of the United States that we were able to fully equip a force of 8 million men from scratch while also supplying vast amounts of equipment to our British, French and Russian allies. The Russians received 22% of their ships and boats, 15% of their aircraft, 12% of their tanks, 2,000 locomotives and 11,000 rail cars through Lend Lease: equipment without which the War in the East might have dragged on for an additional year or even two. Significantly, Lend Lease was formally titled “An Act to Further Promote the Defense of the United States” and that’s what it was all about.
We’re not about to send American boys to fight against the Russians, but we still have an interest in helping the Ukrainians protect their own country. I should state now that the best solution would come through peaceful negotiation, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards anymore. To defend their country, the Ukrainian military is going to need equipment and logistical support. Beans and bullets: because as my old Platoon Sergeant used to say “no nutrition, no mission.” But war is an expensive business and Kiev has no credit and less money. Furthermore, the Ukrainian soldiers are not familiar with Western equipment, they use systems patterned on Soviet designs.
Luckily, our Eastern European allies still have large stocks of such equipment from they days in the Warsaw Pact. You might argue that that was over 20 years ago: but a T-72 that rolled out of the factory in the 1980’s still has its 125 mm cannon and armor, and there are plenty of “off the shelf” upgrades like reactive armor, tread skirts, night vision and targeting equipment that can be quickly added on to make that 30 year old tank into a formidable vehicle on the battlefield. Not only do these countries have the equipment, they are for the most part keen on modernizing their militaries. Poland recently bought 125 Leopard 2A5 from the ever shrinking Bundeswehr and they plan to spend another $44 billion over the next few years on further upgrades. (3)
The new Lend Lease would facilitate this process: Western nations would either replace or fund the replacement of former Warsaw Pact hardware that would be sold to the Ukrainian government on “generous terms”. This is essentially “giving it away” but some sales price would have to be negotiated to provide a political and legal fig leaf. After all, there is nothing in international law that prohibits the sale of military equipment between two sovereign states, and the Russians will have a hard time getting the Security Council to declare that the government in Kiev is engaged in “genocide” over the veto of the US, Britain and France. For once, the Russians would be hoist on their own UN petard.
Mr. Putin will of course be royally pissed. He already gave Hungary’s Victor Orban a lecturing for supposedly selling some Hungarian T-72’s to Ukraine, even though such a sale seems highly unlikely in the light of Mr. Orban’s professed admiration for the Russian autocrat. The worst case scenario is that the Russians decided that the Western supply of the Ukrainians merits a full-scale invasion: but that might be coming anyway. There is no indication that Mr. Putin’s gradualist escalation policy will stop until the Democratic Republics of Lugansk and Donetsk are firmly established. Better to ensure that the people of Ukraine are able to defend their country before the Russians are knocking on the borders of Romania, a country we are obligated to defend.
Eventually, Europe will have to address its defense deficit. The illusion of exercising “soft power” with any “hard power” to back it up should have been shattered after failures to achieve objectives in Georgia in 2008, in Syria and in Ukraine. Even with what is going on in Ukraine, it is highly unlikely that Western Europe will feel threatened enough to make a serious investment in rebuilding their militaries. The European core is simply too far from Russia to undertake the effort. But the creation of a European Defense Fund, similar to the EU Regional Development Funds, would allow the countries of Eastern Europe the wherewithal to take on that burden.
During the Spanish Civil War, the legitimate government of the Second Republic was starved of arms and munitions while Franco’s goose-stepping insurrectionists were lavished with everything the factories of Germany and Italy could produce, including thousands of “volunteers”. The West sat on its hands in the hopes of avoiding a conflict with Franco’s patron, Germany: and attitude that only confirmed Hitler in his opinion of his enemies’ pusillanimity. No need to remind anyone how that all turned out. The Ukrainians are not our allies, and the country’s leaders leave much to be desired; but they deserve better than to be cut to bits and slaughtered. All they need and all they are asking for are the tools to do the job themselves. We would be fools not to oblige them. It is no longer a question even of risking war: war is upon us, though undeclared. The only question now is where Mr. Putin will be stopped: on the Dniepr by the Ukrainians or on the Vistula and Prut by NATO.
Sources and Notes:
1 “NATO boss says alliance observed Russian incursion,” Associated Press, 15 August 2014
2 Press Conference 17 December 1940
3 Christina Balis, “Poland’s Balancing Act: A Briefing for the Defense Sector – Part 1,” Defense Industry Daily, 17 August 2014