Debates: Top experts explain what is behind new U.S. political efforts to send defensive lethal arms to Ukraine and what might be the possible implications.

In this photo taken on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016, a sniper rifle is placed in front of Ukrainian flag in the village of Marinka, near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Photo: AP

On Sept. 21 the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved the “Stability and Democracy for Ukraine Act.” Basically, this bill lays the groundwork for the supply of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine. To become a law, though, it still needs to be approved by the U.S. Senate and signed by the U.S. President. However, it’s the latest signal that U.S. politicians have not forgotten about Ukraine.

Many experts are now debating whether or not sending lethal weapons to Ukraine will lead to an escalation of the conflict and whether or not such a move will increase tensions between Russia and the West.

With that in mind, Russia Direct talked to prominent experts about what is behind this new U.S. policy initiative, what are the prospects of the bill becoming a law, and whether it will lead to instability or stability in Ukraine.

Nicolai Petro, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island, former diplomat in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs in the U.S. Department of State and at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow

The easiest acts to pass in the U.S. Congress are those that are perceived as gaining political points domestically, while incurring no additional cost internationally. In the minds of most U.S. congressmen, this is such a bill. The reference made at the outset, in Section 101, to the precedent of U.S. non-recognition for the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia into the U.S.S.R. is very telling. For nearly fifty years the non-recognition doctrine was given lip service, but had no perceptible impact on U.S.-Soviet relations, which moved smoothly between containment and detente throughout the Cold War. Given this mindset, I assume that the bill will pass the Senate unanimously.

However, I believe it will not have any perceptible impact on the crisis. The Ukrainian government is attempting to avoid implementing the political parts of the Minsk Agreements until it gains control of the border. This violates both the spirit and the letter of the accords, which lay out a specific set of confidence-building measures that the government in Kiev must take before the transfer of border control. But this does not mean that the Ukrainian military is ready to launch an assault on the rebels. The issue is not one of weaponry, but that Russia can, with minimal effort, provide sufficient support to prevent such an assault from succeeding. 

Lethal weaponry (as if there were any other kind) does not therefore affect the relationship of forces in any fundamental way. If anything, it puts the present government in a new bind. The party of war in Kiev will be more insistent in asking: If the Ukrainian Army now has the military weapons it asked for, why is it still not attacking?

I expect Russia to maintain its present level of support to Eastern Ukraine, since the proposed bill does nothing to alter the status quo. At the same time, it will denounce the bill as potentially destabilizing.

Andras Rasz, Senior Research Fellow, Finnish Institute of International Affairs

The very discussion about the possible supply of Ukraine with lethal military assistance has not been new at all. However, it is important to see that the debate has always been going on only about defensive weapons, such as anti-tank missiles, and not about offensive ones, like tanks or ground attack airplanes. Hence, no one intends to empower Ukraine with the ability to actually launch attacks on Russia-backed separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine, or Russian forces in Crimea.

Also, it should be noted that this bill is not a binding one. It is still up to the U.S. Senate and the U.S. President to decide further whether to approve it or not.

If the decision will be taken to supply defensive lethal weapons, it may actually contribute to the de-escalation of the war in the Donbas. The reason is that, so far, Russia-backed separatists clearly have had military-technological superiority in terms tanks, artillery, infantry weapons, as well as electronic warfare equipment.

Also read: "What are the prospects of a new OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine?"

To give a few concrete examples: the OSCE monitoring mission spotted a TOS-1 Buratino launcher and the presence of T-72B3 tanks has also been documented many times. Meanwhile, it is actually the very Minsk II Agreement that confirmed the employment of the Tornado-S artillery system in the conflict. Ukraine has no equivalent to any of these very modern Russian-made weapon systems.

Taking into account their military-technological superiority, it is not surprising that separatist forces have been many times tempted to launch attacks against the positions of Ukrainian government forces, ranging from minor clashes and classic reconnaissance-in-force type of actions to operations involving several hundred troops, such as the attack on Marinka last summer.

At this point, strengthening the defensive capabilities of Ukrainian armed forces will probably act as a de-escalator, as it will discourage separatist forces from further attacks, thus from violating the Minsk Agreement.

Given that Russia is a fully rational actor, its answer to the decision to supply Ukraine with offensive weapons (if the bill gets passed) will consist of three interdependent components.

First, diplomatic protests will surely follow, which is quite natural. Second, a serious upsurge in the ceasefire violations is very likely, accompanied by growing casualties on the frontline. Third, intensive and targeted info operations are likely to be conducted both in the U.S. and other Western countries with the main objectives to blur the difference between defensive and offensive weapons, to establish a causality between the weapons shipped to Ukraine and the upsurge of ceasefire violations, and to frame the Ukrainian armed forces as a corrupt institution that might even sell their armaments. Thus, weapons supplied to Ukraine might end up in the wrong hands. Given that delivering the weapons and training Ukrainian forces to use them would take several months, there is sufficient time to conduct such info operations.

However, I would be surprised to see much else happening. The reason is that Moscow decision-makers are fully aware of two facts. First, improved Ukrainian defensive capabilities do not and will not endanger Russia’s firm control over the separatist territories. Second, no one intends to empower Ukraine with offensive capabilities necessary for regaining control over the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine with military force. All in all, supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine in fact will not endanger the present strategic status quo that is actually favorable for Russia.

Dmitry Suslov, Deputy Director at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Program Director of the Valdai Club

There are several reasons behind this move; that is, the approval of the bill by the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress. One of them is the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton officially supports the supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine and the approval of such a bill works to the advantage of Clinton’s electoral campaign.

I think that most likely, this bill will finally be approved by both the U.S. Senate and by the U.S. president. However, there are two very important points here. First, provisions on the supply of military aid in the U.S. have a nonbinding nature. And second, this bill is included in the U.S. budget’s proposal, which gives the U.S. Administration a choice either to sign the bill or to postpone adoption of the U.S. budget for the next fiscal year.

This is actually one of the favorite tactics of U.S. congressmen to include some controversial issues they want to force through in the draft of the budget. Usually, to avoid difficulties in adopting the budget, everyone approves it. This is why this bill will ultimately get passed despite current Administration opposition to sending lethal weapons to Ukraine.

If such a decision is made, it obviously will lead to the escalation of the conflict. This approval by the U.S. House of Representatives sends a clear signal to the Ukrainian leadership that the U.S. is not united in its policy on Ukraine. On the one hand, there is the Obama Administration, which demands that Ukrainian President Poroshenko implements reforms and threatens Ukraine with anti-Russian sanctions lift if it does not fulfil its obligations. On the other hand, there is another party represented by Hillary Clinton and the Congressional majority, who advocate for a tougher policy towards Russia, for more sanctions and for sending lethal weapons to Ukraine.

In this situation, the Ukrainian leadership understands this division within the U.S. political establishment and sees the unpopularity of the Obama Administration’s policy on Ukraine. This understanding keeps Kiev from meeting demands of the current U.S. administration, as it is waiting for Hillary Clinton to win the Oval Office and to change the current Ukraine policy.

A Ukrainian soldier guards OSCE observers near the village of Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, April 19, 2015. Photo: AP

As for Russia, in case such a bill becomes law, it increases risks of the military escalation in Ukraine, more anti-Russia sanctions from the U.S. and total collapse of the Minsk Agreements –all of which are significant risks. The Minsk Agreements in today’s form suit Russia entirely but do not suit Ukraine, which is why it seeks ways to annul them and to renegotiate them on more favorable terms.

Given that, Russia first of all needs to ramp up its interaction with the Obama Administration, so that it increases the pressure on Kiev. Secondly, Moscow should step up its work with the Europeans, with France and Germany primarily, as they demand that Ukraine implement the Minsk Agreement in its current form as soon as possible. That is why Russia needs the Europeans to send a clear signal to Kiev that they are not happy with such a change.

And lastly, Moscow should start working more actively with Hillary Clinton and her team to explain to them that, in case the decision to send lethal weapons to Ukraine is made, they are risking that they will find themselves isolated as even their European allies are not going to support them. And the same should be relayed to Poroshenko.

Petr Kopka, Head of Research Programs at the Center for Operational Strategic Analysis in Ukraine

The decision of the U.S. House of Representatives to approve the “Stability and Democracy for Ukraine Act” is sort of a legislative legalization of the U.S. Ukraine policy, which has been conducted over the past two years. When the U.S. president will sign the bill, the law will formalize and guarantee continuous support of Ukraine in its fight against external aggression. Exactly these motives lay behind this bill. Therefore, the U.S. legislators view it as a guarantee for continuity of the U.S. policy towards Ukraine.

Recommended: "The perils of arming Kiev"

The fact that the bill was co-authored by 40 congressmen from both the Democratic and Republican parties and was unanimously approved suggests that the U.S. Senate will also approve it. Besides, the external conjuncture is very favorable for such a bill to be passed. Given the recent MH-17 report and recent Russian military actions in Syria, the Senate will hardly reject a bill that is unfavorable for Russia.

As for the U.S. President, I believe that either the current or the future president will sign the bill anyways. The main U.S. paradigm of countering Russia's aggressive foreign policy will remain under any political circumstances.

As for Russia, it has practically nothing to oppose to this bill, mainly, because it has already passed a lot of bills on hybrid warfare and defense of the “Russian world” through the Russian State Duma including by military means.

Besides, both Crimea and Donbas resemble more and more a suitcase without a handle. This is why, despite the fact that it sounds quite paradoxical, such bills as the Ukraine Act can be used by Russia to fix its own mistakes if it properly influences its citizens.

Susan Stewart, Senior Associate, German Institute for International and Security Studies (SWP Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)

The question of providing lethal weapons to Ukraine has been on the agenda for months, if not years. On the one hand, it is possible that such weapons could act as a deterrent to Russia, if that country’s leadership should be considering an escalation of the fighting in the Donbas or even a military push further into Ukraine. On the other hand, there is legitimate concern that introducing more weapons into the picture would increase the likelihood of further violence and death. Raising the costs for Russia of further military action does seem likely to serve as a deterrent.

However, if the lethal weapons (and possible training measures associated with them) are provided only by the U.S., then the probability of a proxy war (or the perception of one) is greater than if the weapons are provided by a broader contingent of states. This is especially true since Russia is particularly sensitive about being seen as the equal of the U.S., in military as well as other realms.

For this reason, and also in order to retain coherence in the U.S. and EU approaches, it would be preferable for Western actors first to agree that countries will provide weapons (or refrain from doing so) according to their own criteria, and second, to ensure that a variety of states are involved. On the time dimension, it seems unlikely that the introduction of additional weapons would result in an immediate escalation of hostilities, since both sides are relatively content with the status quo, and Russia in particular is waiting for the outcome of the U.S. (as well as the French and German) elections in the hope of a constellation of Western leaders more favorable to the Russian agenda on Ukraine and more broadly.

Nonetheless, increasing the number and military potential of the weapons available heightens the danger of more intense fighting and a higher number of casualties if the war should heat up again at a later date.

Vyacheslav Sutyrin, Senior Associate Fellow at the State Academic University for the Humanities (Russian Academy of Sciences)

The fact that the U.S. House of Representatives approved this bill on Sept. 21 is more proof of U.S. support for Ukraine against the growing understanding that the Minsk Agreements do not work. However, this decision alone does not guarantee the supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine. It does not have a binding effect and in the end, the U.S. president will make the final decision.

Besides, the wording used in the Act, especially when it talks about the supply of the lethal weapons, is quite vague. The notion of “lethal defensive weapons,” which sparked much of the discussion, is used only in the General Statements of Policy section. Moreover, this Act does not propose any additional funding, saying “no additional funds are authorized.”

Also read: "The West ignores the Ukraine crisis at its own peril"

This is why, this bill is more likely to be some act of deterrence or containment. In addition, it is an attempt to prove that Kiev is not responsible for the failure of the Minsk Agreements. At the same time, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden recently warned that Europe might make Kiev responsible for the collapse of the agreements.

We also should not expect weapon deliveries to start any time soon. Firstly, it is a strategic pause now because of the U.S. presidential elections, the outcome of which is hard to foresee. Secondly, supplying lethal weapons even defensive ones to Ukraine might spoil the U.S. image and can further legitimize Moscow’s support for the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.

As for the Russian response, there is nothing yet to respond to, as there were no real steps made by the U.S.

Stefan Meister, Head of the Program for Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia, Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia, German Council on Foreign Relations

I think that such decision of the U.S. House of Representatives shows that the U.S. Congress has its own time schedule, and this schedule is not always linked with the president’s policy. The U.S. congressmen use the period before the elections a time when Obama decides almost nothing and try to bring their interests through and push the topic.

However, there will be no support by the U.S. president, who is not interested in the supply of lethal weapons. The U.S. Senate might be more inclined to support the House of Representatives’ decision, but I am not sure. Everything depends on the new U.S. president with regard to this issue. Before this person is in position, nothing will change fundamentally.

In terms of possible consequences if the bill ultimately receives the approval of the Senate, I think it will have just a limited impact, because only the new U.S. president might change the situation fundamentally. I think the latest MH17 report and the proof that Russia was involved for downing Flight MH17 might play a more important role in escalating the situation. But I don't see at the moment any interest on any side to escalate the conflict.

As for Russia, I don't think Moscow wants to escalate the situation, because it is in a wait-and-see mode. That means I expect a strong statement, but no fundamental change.