U.S. should not rush to arm Ukraine

A child waits on a bus to leave the Ukranian town of Debaltseve, where rebels are focusing their offensive and where nearly 2,000 residents have fled in recent days.
A child waits on a bus to leave the Ukranian town of Debaltseve, where rebels are focusing their offensive and where nearly 2,000 residents have fled in recent days. The Associated Press

The world’s attention has been focused on the Jordanian pilot burned alive by Islamic State terrorists. We already knew, however, the atrocities they are willing to commit. This latest horror is not going to change U.S. policy to degrade and destroy this brutal group; if anything, it is strengthening the coalition against the Islamic State.

What will likely be more consequential are the behind-the-scenes deliberations going on at the White House about whether to send more military aid to Ukraine in its battle against pro-Russian separatists. That would be a significant change in U.S. policy – one that President Barack Obama and his advisers ought to consider very carefully.

We should not move toward a proxy war with Russia. Our European partners in NATO should take the lead; it’s their backyard, after all.

So far, U.S. military assistance included “non-lethal” equipment – body armor, first-aid kits, night-vision goggles and the like. But the Western-backed Ukrainian government has suffered significant setbacks on the battlefield recently and is pleading for modern weapons to counter the tanks, rockets and artillery that separatists are getting from Russia.

Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to Ukraine’s capital on Thursday; he and other senior administration officials are said to be taking a fresh look at arming the government.

Yet even if weapons are supposedly only “defensive,” what guarantees are there that anti-tank missiles won’t be used as part of an offensive? And if the separatists keep advancing, would the U.S. and NATO send even more sophisticated weapons?

Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s unpredictability makes devising a strategy difficult. We don’t know for sure whether a greater show of force by the West will finally persuade him to pull back his expansionism into former Soviet republics.

We do know that civilian casualties don’t seem to trouble him that much. Putin didn’t relent after the pro-Russian militia shot down a passenger jet last July, killing nearly 300. Last month, rockets reportedly killed dozens of civilians in Mariupol, a key port city in any Russian plans to secure a land bridge to Crimea, which it annexed last year in violation of international law.

We also know that economic sanctions haven’t had their desired effect. Neither has the damage to Russia’s economy due to plummeting gas prices. A diplomatic solution seems very far away.

Despite a cease-fire reached last September, fighting between separatists and government troops has intensified. A growing number of civilians are killed, injured or forced from their homes.

Obama already has the authority he needs from Congress to send weapons to Ukraine. This week, he received a report from a high-level group of former diplomats and military officers, who recommended that the U.S. provide $3 billion worth of anti-tank weapons, armored Humvees, reconnaissance drones and radar equipment.

The president shouldn’t rush into this potentially momentous decision, but when he makes it, his message to Putin must be unmistakable.