There was a palpable tone shift in U.S. policy toward Ukraine this week, when the Obama administration signaled that it was ready to consider sending the country lethal military aid. A confluence of factors is pushing President Obama toward this decision. The fragile ceasefire brokered in September between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists has failed, manifested in the series of recent and high-profile separatist advances against the Ukrainian military this week. Bipartisan congressional support for sending weapons to Ukraine, championed by Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRedistricting reform key to achieving the bipartisanship Americans claim to want Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Voting rights, Trump's Big Lie, and Republicans' problem with minorities MORE (R-Ariz.) and Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezDems block Cruz's Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill Overnight Defense & National Security — Differences remain between NATO, Russia Senate Democrats unveil bill sanctioning Russia over Ukraine MORE (D-N.J.), as well as a newly released report by former senior U.S. and European officials recommending lethal military aid for the embattled country, have also contributed to Obama and his tight inner circle of foreign policy advisers reconsidering the lethal aid option.
Helping Ukraine help itself in the fight against separatists may be the right move, but before the Obama administration takes this step, it should be able to answer five key questions.
What should the United States send? According to an Atlantic Council report released this week, the Ukrainian military is in desperate need of equipment, including counter-battery radars, unmanned aerial vehicles, secure communications hardware, armored Humvees, and anti-tank and anti-armor capabilities. All recommended equipment and weapons are defensive in nature. But they also require specialized training, maintenance and protection. This means either the United States takes a calculated risk and sends in advisers to train the Ukrainian military on how to use the equipment (which is highly unlikely in the current political climate); it sends the advanced equipment without advisers and risks the Ukrainian military not knowing how to use it; or it sends equipment that requires less training but may not be what Ukraine needs.
Who will the United States hand the equipment off to, and what will happen to the equipment once the hand-off is made? This question may be one for military logisticians, but it is still an important one that has substantial policy implications. The Ukrainian military is steadfastly united in its fight against the Russian-backed separatists, but it is also war-weary and fighting residual Soviet-era atrophy from decades of corruption, poor training and out-of-date equipment. It is unclear whether Ukraine has the capacity to take high-tech U.S. equipment, properly deploy it to the frontlines and protect it from capture. Ukraine has also augmented its military ranks with nonprofessional volunteer battalions that lack solid military training but still play an important role in the fight against separatists. This raises the question of whether the United States is okay with these volunteer battalions receiving any of its equipment in addition to the professional military.
What would European support for this new policy entail? It is highly unlikely that Ukraine will receive any lethal military aid under NATO auspices. Many alliance members, including Germany, have stated that they will not provide lethal military aid. NATO would have to fight significant bureaucratic inertia and hesitation within its ranks of 28 member states to take such a bold and forward-leaning stance on supporting Ukraine. Therefore, the United States must articulate how a lethal aid package would fit into the broader transatlantic strategy on Ukraine and what it could expect from its European allies. Some NATO members, including Poland, Canada and the Baltic states, have quietly signaled they are willing to send weapons and military hardware to Ukraine, but they would not risk exposing themselves unless the United States took the first step.
What would Russia's response be to the United States and its allies sending Ukraine lethal military aid? The U.S. government has yet to fully answer this question in public. Some senior officials and lawmakers say it would deter further Russian advances, but what if it didn't? The past year has shown that Russia has significant political and military capital at stake in Ukraine. The United States and Europe have indicated that they think they have less at stake. Actions speak louder than words; thus far, the transatlantic response has consisted of belated sanctions, inconsistent messaging and harsh yet empty rhetoric toward Russia that tacitly conveys an underlying sense of apathy toward Ukraine's fate. If Russia ramps up its support of separatists after Ukraine receives lethal military aid, or retaliates against supportive NATO allies such as Estonia or Poland in ways that fall below the threshold of overt attacks, how would the United States and its allies respond?
Finally, and perhaps most important: What is the United States's end goal in providing lethal military aid to Ukraine? A proper support package may slow or even halt separatist victories in eastern Ukraine, but Ukrainian forces won't likely be able to roll back advances or take back the contested Donbas region — let alone Crimea — given the military's current fighting condition and Russia's heavy-handed involvement. The United States needs to define its end goal before sending weapons and equipment, whether it be forcing separatists and Russia back to the negotiating table or simply preventing Ukraine from losing any more territory. The answer to this question should shape what any support package includes.
These questions are not impossible to answer; nor should they preclude the United States and its allies from sending Ukraine sorely needed lethal military aid. The right support package could curb the separatists' momentum, deter further Russian aggression and send a much-needed and long-overdue political signal that the transatlantic community stands fully behind Ukraine in more than just words. But the wrong support package, or the right support package improperly deployed without clear strategic guidance, could prove ineffective, embolden Russia to go further and undermine Ukraine's slipping faith in Western support. If the United States and its allies cannot answer these questions, they run the risk of prolonging the long and bloody conflict in Ukraine.
Gramer is assistant director of the Atlantic Council's Transatlantic Security Initiative. He tweets @RobbieGramer. All views expressed are his own.