Arming Ukraine: Practicalities and Implications

America’s recent decision to authorize the sale and delivery of Javelin anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine was shortsighted and dangerous to all parties involved.[1] The provision of the Javelin weapons system, in particular, serves as little more than a symbolic gesture. In the end, the authorization will likely prove a maneuver in optics, not strategy. Furthermore, recent developments suggest the Ukrainian government, in an effort to secure the deal, may have interfered with the ongoing special counsel investigation in the United States.[2]

The following delineates the reasoning behind this conclusion, puts forward some of the stronger arguments in favor of the authorization, and describes why they are misguided. Amid the fraught U.S.-Russia relations of late, it is vital for American policymakers to consider each geopolitical decision with the utmost care, ensuring the best interests of the United States and her allies are always kept in mind.[3] An appropriate policy would include forgoing any further sale of lethal weaponry, replacing it instead with increased funds and non-lethal materiel such as counter-electronic warfare (EW) technology and the deployment of additional troops on a strictly train-and-advise basis.

Soldiers with 2nd Cavalry Regiment fire FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missiles during a combined arms live fire training exercise at the Estonian Defense Forces central training area in Estonia. (Ben Houtkooper/Aiir Source Military/YouTube)

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine has claimed over 10,000 lives and forced over a million more to flee their homes.[4] Taking these figures into consideration, it is evident that decisive action is necessary; thus far, however, the United States has taken the wrong approach. Arming Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles runs the risk of reigniting what has become a relatively static engagement between the Ukrainian Army and Russian-backed separatists.[5] Skirmishes occur on a daily basis, and casualties continue to accrue, but a sudden injection of Western munitions into the hands of the Ukrainian Army is likely to prompt a disproportionate response from the side of the Russians, a reaction not without historical precedence.[6] Assuming the Russians respond not in kind, but with asymmetric force, where does that leave the United States? Is the United States to perpetually provide bigger and better arms as the process persists in some sort of vicious iteration of Robert Jervis’s spiral model?[7] For now, Russia has far more at stake in this conflict. With his population’s support and at least six more years at the helm, Vladimir Putin can and will broaden his country’s efforts in the region if need be.[8] Even if the United States were committed to meet every response with more firepower, the Russians have the overwhelming advantage of geography. Russia’s shared border with Ukraine, one that is reportedly near-impossible to effectively monitor, enables expedited resupplies.[9] Putin’s relative autonomy in terms of foreign policy decisions also adds to the potential for a rapid response. 

Furthermore, it is prudent to consider how Ukrainians may interpret the signaling of receiving lethal arms from America. Inspired by the renewed and augmented support of the Americans, this move could embolden Ukrainians to begin launching assaults, thus producing an avoidable escalation scenario. Many like to frame the conversation as providing so-called defensive weapons rather than offensive, but in reality, there is no logical distinction between the two.[10] The Ukrainians using these weapons to go on an offensive, making the U.S. an indirect accomplice in violating the Minsk Agreement, remains a real possibility and a real concern of those monitoring the situation closely.[11]

Alexander Lukashenko, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, and Petro Poroshenko take part in the talks on a settlement to the situation in Ukraine in Minsk, 2015. (The Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/Wikimedia)

From a purely practical standpoint, providing Ukraine with Javelins makes little sense. While the provision of such weapons would certainly generate substantial repercussions due to the symbolism of the action, their usefulness on the battlefield would be virtually imperceptible. In fact, former commander of U.S. Army Europe remarked in 2015 that the Ukrainian Army having Javelin missiles “would not change the situation strategically in a positive way.”[12] Ukraine has no need for Javelin missiles, as it already produces its own comparable varieties of anti-tank weaponry.[13] The Ukrainian Army is well-equipped for situations that require anti-tank capabilities, thus it is redundant to provide them with more. Furthermore, the conflict has largely steered away from tank warfare, further highlighting the superfluity of Javelin sales.[14] The provision of other lethal arms in general is similarly excessive.

Since the outbreak of the conflict, the Ukrainian Army has improved its capabilities in almost every aspect of warfare by orders of magnitude. Ukraine’s current air, land, and sea means are unrecognizable in comparison to those of 2014.[15] If anything, the United States should be increasing support to help Ukraine counter the innovative electronic warfare the Russian-backed separatists are waging in the east.[16] An electronic warfare package would be immensely more advantageous to the effort in Ukraine. The package could include products such as the THOR III, CREW jammer, or MODI II systems, as well as a contingent of U.S. electronic warfare specialists to train Ukrainian soldiers using a strategy akin to the one released by the Pentagon in 2017.[17] This recent Department of Defense approach lays emphasis on the integration of burgeoning electronic warfare capabilities throughout the gamut of military operations, the use of cost-effective technology in lieu of conventional arms, and the coordination of preparedness training for the rigors of conflict in the electromagnetic spectrum.[18]

A U.S. Marine carrying a Thor II backpack-mounted counter IED jammer in Nimroz province, Afghanistan, Dec. 2, 2011. (Cpl. Timothy Solano/U.S. Marine Corps Photo)

These systems, among others, could make a genuine difference in an electronic warfare space currently dominated by the Russians.[19] As an added benefit, Ukrainian troops could later be debriefed by their American counterparts on how the technology fared in real-world application against the current leader in electronic warfare tactics, providing valuable insight to be used in future strategic planning. To further assist, the United States could take the advice of a February 2018 Carnegie report, which suggests the problem the Ukrainian Army faces now is not one of hardware, but of structure, and a key component of successful reform is the expansion of Western training efforts.[20]

It is also imperative to acknowledge the likelihood of American-made weapons systems winding up in the hands other than those for whom they were intended. Time and again, U.S.-supplied weapons are either stolen from the anticipated beneficiary or never make it there in the first place. In just the last decade, this happened in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Mexico.[21]

In Ukraine, the worry would be that the Javelins provided by America could make their way into the arms of either some sort of extremist Ukrainian militia such as the Azov Battalion or the very same Russian-backed separatists the weapons were meant to combat.[22] The Ukrainian Army has lost control of countless weapons that have then found their way onto the streets and online marketplaces.[23] In one instance, Ukrainian Army vehicles were taken by separatists in broad daylight and subsequently paraded about.[24] More importantly, non-lethal U.S. military equipment, such as mortar-tracking radar technology given to Ukraine in 2015, was stolen by the separatists not long after delivery.[25] Assuming such a risk with lethal weaponry is needless and should, under present circumstances, be avoided.

The advocates of arming Ukraine cite a number of well-intentioned, yet nebulous and, in some cases, erroneous motives for their position. The primary argument is that the United States must support the independence of a democratic, potential future NATO member.[26] The problem with this particular belief is that the United States is and has been supporting the independence of Ukraine for years.[27] Since the outset of the conflict, the United States has provided over $1.3 billion in monetary assistance, training, and non-lethal materiel such as radar, surveillance, and vehicles.[28] As argued above, there is no practical need for the provision of lethal arms, so the support for Ukrainian independence is, in effect, being realized. Another argument for arming Ukraine is that doing so strengthens NATO; however, one can argue persuasively that Ukraine is doing just fine without American anti-tank missiles.[29]

In the same vein as the strengthening NATO argument, champions for the arming of Ukraine insist that lethal arms from America will enhance European security. European allies of the United States tend to have a different opinion.[30] Representatives of countries located within Europe, such as the former president of France, Francois Hollande; German Chancellor, Angela Merkel; and U.K. national security official, Mark Sedwell, have publicly stated their qualms with a U.S.-provided lethal arms package, echoing the concerns outlined above.[31] Also coming from within Europe, the European Council on Foreign Relations has published objections to the idea.[32] In a broader sense, current French president Emmanuel Macron has recently called for Europe to achieve greater defense autonomy and rely less on the United States. In his remarks, he suggested a move towards security cooperation with the Russian Federation if the situation in Donbas deescalates.[33]

Arming Ukraine is symbolically moral, but chances an increase in hostilities that could devolve into a tit-for-tat proxy war, or worse.

There is no rational basis for providing Ukraine with Javelin missile systems, or any other lethal weaponry. Such a move has no positive effect for the Ukrainians on the battlefield. Instead, the United States is undertaking several wholly preventable risks with the prospect of realizing zero strategic ends. The Ukrainian armed forces are capable of sustaining their mission domestically. Arming Ukraine is symbolically moral, but chances an increase in hostilities that could devolve into a tit-for-tat proxy war, or worse.  

An entirely new U.S. policy towards Ukraine is unnecessary. Rather, the existing policy of supporting Ukraine is in need of amending, which can be achieved by a collaborative approach on the part of Congress and the executive branch. A three-pronged strategy is the best means of modifying the current U.S. strategy.

First and foremost, the U.S. must transition from the provision of lethal means, to non-lethal aid paired with an advisory presence focused on countering Russian electronic warfare capabilities. Next, in lieu of any further weapons deals, Congress should author and pass a bill that allocates increased funds to be used in providing Ukraine with non-lethal materiel, surveillance drones, and, most importantly, counter-electronic warfare technology. Finally, Congress should petition the president to authorize not only the aforementioned equipment-provision bill, but also the deployment of additional troops, with a non-combat mandate, to assist the Ukrainian military with training and structural reforms.

Brendan Chrzanowski is a Navy veteran and a student in the NYU Global Affairs graduate program.

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Header Image: Ukrainian soldiers march down Kiev's main street during military parade to mark the 25th anniversary of Ukraine's Independence in Kiev, Ukraine, Aug. 24, 2016. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)


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[2] Kramer, A. E. (2018, May 02). Ukraine, Seeking U.S. Missiles, Halted Cooperation With Mueller Investigation. Retrieved from

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[9] UAWire. (2016, July 20). OSCE: Ukraine doesn't control 408 km of its border with Russia. Retrieved from

[10] Pifer, S., & Talbott, S. (2016, July 28). Time to Give Ukraine Defensive Weapons. Retrieved from; Kosinski, M., & Browne, R. (2017, December 23). US to provide anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, official says. Retrieved from

[11] BBC. (2015, February 12). Ukraine ceasefire: New Minsk agreement key points. Retrieved from; Milakovsky, B., Raitasalo, J., Ayoob, M., Smith, J. M., & DeBevoise, N. (2017, August 28). The Real Danger of Sending U.S. Arms to Ukraine. Retrieved from

[12] Babb, C. (2015, December 10). Gen. Ben Hodges on Russia, Islamic State, and Women in Combat. Retrieved from

[13] Army Technology. (n.d.). Corsar Anti-Tank Missile System. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from; Army Recognition. (n.d.). Stugna Stugna-P anti-tank guided missile technical data sheet. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from; Malyasov, D. (2015, October 04). The new Ukrainian anti-tank guided missile system based on CF MOTO TRACKER. Retrieved from

[14] Roblin, S., Raitasalo, J., Ayoob, M., Smith, J. M., & DeBevoise, N. (2018, January 6). Ukraine Is Building Its Own Tank-Killer Missiles to Fight Russia. Retrieved from 

[15] Bielieskov, M., Rubel, R., Goldstein, L. J., & Mohib, H. (2018, February 27). Ukraine's Military Is Back. Retrieved from

[16] Ripley, T. (2017, September 19). Russia steps up electronic warfare campaign in eastern Ukraine. Retrieved from

[17] USMC. (2010). THOR III System. Retrieved from 1 THOR III CREW FACT SHEET.pdf; USMC. (2010). CREW Jammer. Retrieved from 1 CVRJ CREW FACT SHEET.pdf;  McCaneyNov, K. (2015, November 2). Marines award $73.2M deal for backpack electronic warfare devices. Retrieved from; Pomerleau, M. (2017, December 08). Marines: New electronic warfare tech can't lead to 40 lb packs. Retrieved from;

[18] Osborn, K. (2017, September 6). Reinventing electronic warfare. Retrieved from

[19] Heininger, C. (2018, February 6). U.S. Army's new electronic warfare capabilities hit the ground in Europe. Retrieved from; McLeary, P. (2016, September 23). Russia's Winning the Electronic War. Retrieved from

[20] Akimenko, V. (2018, February 22). Ukraine's Toughest Fight: The Challenge of Military Reform. Retrieved from

[21] Risen, J., Mazzetti, M., & Schmidt, M. S. (2012, December 05). U.S.-Approved Arms for Libya Rebels Fell Into Jihadis' Hands. Retrieved from; MacAskill, E., & Chulov, M. (2014, October 22). Isis apparently takes control of US weapons airdrop intended for Kurds. Retrieved from; Rogin, J., & Lake, E. (2015, January 08). Iran-Backed Militias Are Getting U.S. Weapons in Iraq. Retrieved from; Snow, S. (2017, August 14). Taliban propaganda showcases US weapons and radios as captured war spoils. Retrieved from; Axe, D. (2017, June 03). U.S. Weapons Now in Somali Terrorists' Hands. Retrieved from ; Whitlock, C. (2015, March 17). Pentagon loses track of $500 million in weapons, equipment given to Yemen. Retrieved from; Noel, A. (2016, January 22). The US Government Accidentally Helped Arm El Chapo. Retrieved from

[22] Luhn, A. (2014, August 30). Preparing for War With Ukraine's Fascist Defenders of Freedom. Retrieved from

[23] Mendel, I. (2017, December 24). Taken From Ukraine's War Zone, Grenades Are Used in Crimes, Too. Retrieved from; Miller, C. (2018, March 28). Ukrainian Police Bust Online Market For Military Equipment. Retrieved from

[24] Harding, L., & Luhn, A. (2014, April 16). Pro-Russian separatists seize Ukrainian armoured vehicles. Retrieved from

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[26] Daalder, I., Flournoy, M., Herbst, J., Lodal, J., Stavridis, J., Wald, C., . . . Talbott, S. (2016, July 29). Preserving Ukraine's Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do. Retrieved from

[27] Weisman, J., & Joachim, D. S. (2014, March 27). Congress Approves Aid of $1 Billion for Ukraine. Retrieved from

[28] Office of the Press Secretary. (2016, June 15). FACT SHEET: U.S. Assistance to Ukraine since February 2014. Retrieved from; USAID. (n.d.). U.S. Foreign Aid by Country- Ukraine. Retrieved April 15, 2018, from; Roblin, S. (2018, March 2). Why Is the Trump Administration Selling Giant Sniper Rifles to Ukraine? Retrieved from

[29] Herbst, J. E. (2017, August 30). Ukraine Needs Arms, Not Cheap Arguments. Retrieved from; NATO. (2017, October 3). Ukraine three years on: A basis for optimism. Retrieved from

[30] Tamkin, E., De Luce, D., & Gramer, R. (2017, October 27). Ukraine Expects Trump to Approve Arms Deliveries. Retrieved from

[31] UNIAN. (2017, August 01). WSJ: Pentagon offers plan to arm Ukraine. Retrieved from; Aljazeera America. (2015, February 5). Germany, France renew Ukraine peace push as US floats arming Kiev. Retrieved from

[32] Torreblanca, J. I. (2015, February 11). Arming Ukraine is a bad idea. Retrieved from

[33] RFE/RL. (2018, August 28). France Calls On EU To Not Rely On U.S. Defense, Reach Out To Russia. Retrieved from