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The supply of American lethal weapons to Ukraine has been a bone of contention from the beginning of Donbas conflict.
Some have argued that it is important to deter Russia. Others believed that supplies of weapons to Ukraine would only escalate the conflict.
There is no unity in the American government, while Congress stands for the decisive support of Ukraine, including the provision of lethal weapons, Obama’s administration is persuaded that non-lethal weapons and military trainings are enough for Ukraine.
The situation changed after President Obama has signed defense budget in 2016. This document paved the way to provide military $ 300 mln assistance to Ukraine, including lethal weapons.
We have analyzed all these twists and turns might influence the dynamics of Donbas conflict.
In short, the situation would not be in favor of Kyiv. Nevertheless, it would be a clear signal to the Ukrainian people and to the Russian leadership about the readiness of the U.S. to act decisively in the area of security.
This statement is not groundless at all.
What does American assistance mean?
Annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the east of Ukraine led the United States to significantly increase military assistance to Ukraine.
Based on the targets in 2016, Ukraine joined the list of the largest recipients of American aid.
The total expenditure on assistance to Ukraine grew from $ 514 mln to at least $ 658 mln in newly signed law on consolidated budgetary appropriations for 2016.
It should be noted that Ukrainian-American cooperation in defense has been rather high even before the aggravation of the conflict with Russia.
In the early years of independence the U.S. supported developing free market, democratic institutions, and security sector reform. In 2000s amount of aid has decreased, but remained relatively stable.
35-40% of the total external assistance programs belonged to Security and Defense.
Mechanisms and sales of arms in Ukraine
In the past decade, sales of weapons to Ukraine was relatively small. Ukraine had not leaded the front line in the war on international terrorism. It was just a "historic" recipient of American military aid, like Israel or Egypt.
After becoming independent, Ukraine has mistakenly believed that there are no enemies. Thus, the defense spending was drastically reduced, military buildings demolished or sold, and reform of the security sector stalled.
The situation changed dramatically after the beginning of Russian aggression. Ukraine has found that its army is in a state of neglect.
That is why Ukrainian leadership has asked the U.S. to provide rear artillery systems, anti-tank guided missiles, body armor, electronic and other equipment.
The U.S. uses several mechanisms: a program for the sale of arms to foreign countries (Foreign Military Sales), program of selling weapons through direct commercial deliveries (Direct Commercial Sales), program of selling surplus military equipment and weapons (Excess Defense Articles), and program of selling weapons in emergencies. Ukraine gets the arms through the first program, and the negotiations are conducted at the level of defense ministries of both countries, as well as through direct commercial delivery. Agreement within the last program have limited access to the data on arms exports.
From the beginning of the conflict, President Obama condemned Russian aggression, showing that the military solution is not a good choice, and he tends to impose the economic sanctions.
One of the arguments against providing lethal weapons was the danger of further escalation of the conflict and the risk that American weapons would get into wrong hands.
In nine months, President Obama signed the budget, which allocates $ 300 mln military assistance to Ukraine and, in particular, the $ 50 mln are for the lethal weapons.
In the summer, Obama vetoed the budget because of different issues unrelated to Ukraine. When finalizing the document the amount allocated to Ukraine increased from $ 200 mln to $ 300 mln.
It really sounds good, but help to Ukraine remains modest compared to Afghanistan ($ 3.65 bln), or Iraqi Fund ($ 715 mln).
Persistent violations of the ceasefire. Obama made it clear that the United States could change its position on lethal weapons if the conflict cannot be resolved by diplomatic means. After all, a year after the signing of the first Minsk agreements, heavy artillery has not been pulled back from contact line. OSCE observers cannot move freely through the territory of Donbas, and hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers have during this period.
Pressure of the Congress and other groups. The Republican majority in Congress always stood on a position that the U.S. should be more decisive concerning conflict in Ukraine, and from the beginning of 2015 the committees recommended to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons.
Recommendations of experts and officials. Many well-known experts stated that the West should provide comprehensive and integrated support to Ukraine.
And although approval by Congress allows the U.S. government to give Ukraine armor systems, rocket launchers, mortars, and small arms, there is a question: whether Obama’s administration will use this opportunity?
Although the arms in question is lethal, its main objective is to strengthen the defense capability of Ukrainian army if the pro-Russian militants attack.
Another important aspect is that the funds reserved for Ukraine will not affect the overall downward trend in the U.S. defense spending, which runs from 2010.
Initiative on assisting Ukraine’s security has been defined as a part of the financing of the foreign armed forces (overseas contingency operations), also known as "war fund", which is not affected by changes in current costs.
Lethal defensive weapons: political message or changing the rules of the game?
Ukraine has come a long way from declarations of support to the allocation of $ 300 mln military aid. In practice it means that $ 50 mln are allocated for the lethal defensive weapons, of course, if the U.S. government decides to activate this opportunity.
The U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Valeriy Chalyi said that the money could be used for purchasing the anti-tank systems. There is enough money for buying 324 Javelin antitank complexes.
How can it make a difference in terms of Donbas conflict?
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of the U.S. Army Europe, have expressed his concerns about the possible consequences of the lethal weapons, such as complexes Javelin, in Ukraine.
He claims that this could intensify Russian presence and increase the number of losses among the Ukrainian soldiers. General is convinced that these weapons would not bring strategic change in the situation. In addition, the U.S. lethal weapons would not fundamentally affect the country's defense capacity.
$ 50 mln, allocated for lethal weapons, represent only a small fraction of the military spending of Ukraine.
However, the fact that the U.S. changes its strategy on arms would be a serious political signal to Russia.
We must remember that Putin's decision to start intervention in Crimea and Donbas was affected by the perception of his actions.
Many experts agree that Putin’s risky gamble in Ukraine and rising aggression on the eve of each stage of Minsk negotiations, were the result of the fact that the U.S. president did not consider the provision of lethal weapons as a potential answer.
Although economic sanctions harm the Russian leadership, they rarely affect the situation in the short term.
Therefore, Putin used Obama’s hesitation as a tactical advantage, he could easily equip his proteges in Donbas. If Obama were more decisive in the periods of the greatest Russian aggression, perhaps Putin would think twice before continuing escalation of the conflict.
In 2016 Ukraine plans to spend 5% of GDP (about $ 4.8 billion) on defense. Obviously, the $ 300 assistance from the U.S. will significantly strengthen the country's defense. These funds will help increase education and training of military personnel, to enhance intelligence and accelerate the reform in the field of security and defense.
Improving defense capabilities reduces the likelihood that the conflict would increase. The assistance from the U.S. increases aggressor’s cost of resolving the conflict by military means.
War is expensive. Falling of oil prices, economic decline, sanctions and military campaign in Syria (these factors are likely to remain in 2016) do not give opportunities of another major military campaign. Low-intensity conflict in Donbas is likely to continue, while strengthening the aggression by the pro-Russian militants incur additional economic losses due to new sanctions.
Let us keep in mind that the defensive weapons should serve the defensive purposes. Misuse of the lethal defense weapons raises serious doubts about further economic and military support from the West.
Since Ukraine is heavily dependent on foreign aid, it should make everything possible to prevent using lethal weapons in offensive purposes or getting it into the wrong hands.
Expectations shape the reality.
Granting Ukraine lethal weapons will be a signal not only for Russia but also for the Ukrainian people that the United States supports Ukraine's intends to join the West. Ukraine has a large internal support to provide lethal defense weapons, as evidenced by the survey of the Institute of World Politics and the Razumkov Center, Ukrainian political experts and the population in general support the decision to obtain lethal weapons from the U.S.
Therefore, this step will improve the image of American power, which is one of the guarantors of the security and sovereignty of Ukraine, according to Budapest Memorandum.
In terms of people’s expectations, providing lethal weapons could be even compared with the free trade zone and visa-free regime.
From the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. economic and military assistance to Ukraine has increased significantly. Peaceful solution to the situation is possible only when the military operations would be too costly for the aggressor.
Well-trained and well-armed Ukrainian army could be a serious argument to persuade Russia not to aggravate the conflict, creating space for the stabilization of the Donbas conflict in terms of Minsk peace or in another format.