Arms Deliveries Outgunned, Outmaneuvered, Out of Options

Despite pleas for military assistance from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Western leaders are holding back on arms deliveries – so far. Experts say the confrontation could end if Ukraine and Russia accept the status quo.
Ukraine's security council gathered on Wednesday to discuss the options in the country's east.

After Ukrainian troops pulled out of the eastern town of Debaltseve, calls for arms from Kiev grew louder Thursday but so far have gone unheeded.

Western leaders, especially in Europe, remain wary of entering the conflict.

The ceasefire agreement, signed by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany last week in Belarus' capital Minsk, did not prevent Debaltseve from being taken by pro-Russian forces. The ceasefire came into force Sunday but fighting has raged in the region for the past four days.

As he ordered Ukrainian troops to pull out of Debaltseve on Wednesday, President Petro Poroshenko called U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to ask for military assistance. But Mr. Biden promised nothing.

European leaders are also biding their time.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said Wednesday on German television that Germany, France and the European Union “will not stand down in doing everything possible to support Ukraine and its territorial integrity.”

Ms. Merkel has already made it clear that she does not see arms deliveries to Ukraine as part of any solution. She regards the risks of escalation as too great.

The E.U. foreign policy minister, Federica Mogherini, called the rebels' actions a violation of the ceasefire and said the European Union “stands ready to take appropriate action in case the fighting and other negative developments in violation of the Minsk agreements continue."

But like Mr. Obama and Ms. Merkel, she made no mention of how.

Mr. Poroshenko has called for peacekeepers from the United Nations and the European Union to enforce the ceasefire, with separatists continuing to fight after their advance on Debaltseve.

As it stands, Mr. Poroshenko has relinquished a part of his country to the pro-Russian separatists and is not likely to see it return.

“For the forseeable future, Russia won’t give up the territory it controls,” Christian Mölling, an analyst with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “The question that the West now has to put to President Poroshenko is: Should Ukraine accept the status quo?”

And the question that Western leaders would need to relay to President Vladimir Putin is: Is Russia prepared to accept the status quo?

If not, experts agree weapons from the some Western countries, such as the United States, would likely begin to flow to Ukraine.

“Chancellor Merkel has made it very clear she doesn’t want to supply Ukraine with arms and that she wants to keep the ceasefire agreement,” Bernhard Müller-Härlin with the Körber Foundation, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “But if anyone is going to deliver weapons, it will be the United States.”

Support for sending arms is growing among U.S. lawmakers, despite Mr. Obama’s present reluctance.

In particular, new defense export guidelines could help the United States sell or lease drones to European countries. The United States is the world’s leading producer of military drones.

Karl-Georg Wellmann, a foreign relations expert in Ms. Merkel's Christian Democrat party, fears U.S. politicians will push their president to take action.

"We will no longer be able to prevent weapon deliveries from the United States and Canada," Mr. Wellmann told the German newspaper Tagesspiegel. "This could develolp into a big war."

Canada, at least for now, wants to rely on trade sanctions.  On Wednesday, the country increased its sanctions against Russia, leading to harsh criticism from Moscow.

The European Union is also weighing increasing sanctions against Russia.  “We are ready to take corresponding steps if the contravention of the Minsk agreement continues,” said E.U. foreign minister Frederica Mogherini said.

Brussels is considering excluding Russia from the international banking system Swift and restricting the country's access to nuclear technology. Also, the sanctions agreed in early 2014 were recently extended to September 2015.

As for sending arms, Mr. Mölling noted that such a move could also involve sending people to operate them or train others to do so.

"Many studies, including one from the CIA, question the effectiveness of short-term weapon deliveries," he said. "The more complex and effective the weapon, the more you need trained people to operate them, and this takes time."

Meanwhile, there is little patience in Ukraine for the dispute between the U.S. and E.U. leaders over whether or not to provide military support.

“We need these weapons to be able to fight back against the terrorists who are supported by Russia,” Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlov Kimkin told Die Zeit newspaper.


Mathias Brüggmann, Moritz Koch and Thomas Ludwig contributed to this story. Allison Williams, John Blau and Gilbert Kreijger are editors with Handelsblattt Global Edition. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected][email protected], [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]