On 12 June 2014, three tanks were reported to have crossed the border between Russia and Ukraine and entered areas controlled by the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Since then, many more have followed accompanied by a vast number of armoured fighting vehicles, artillery and other equipment. Regular units from the Russian armed forces rotate in and out of Ukraine. Just like the Kremlin in the 1950s and 1960s denied that Soviet forces were deployed to Korea and Vietnam, the Kremlin today claims that no Russian troops fight in Ukraine.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has introduced the term hybrid warfare to younger generations of Europeans who have no memory of Soviet behaviour. It is aimed at key decision makers by combining military operations with subversive efforts to avoid attribution. Today’s Russia combines this military strategy with political and economic tools as well as information warfare against not only Ukraine, but also many EU and NATO member states. Financially weaker and more corrupt EU members are being offered direct or indirect short-term deals with Moscow. Pro-Kremlin trolls produce commentaries in local languages. Russian security services kidnap other nations’ citizens in their own countries and arrest ships in international waters. Whether the West likes it or not, it is already at war with Russia.
Just as Europe today is involved in a hybrid war with Russia, Europe should respond to this using a wide range of different tools. The German chancellor Angela Merkel’s current position is that the Ukraine crisis will not be solved by military means. In isolation, this statement makes sense. In theory, few nations have the capability to win a conventional or nuclear military conflict with Russia on their own and Ukraine is not one of them. But just as Russia is targeting Ukraine with a combination of political and economic pressure, military force and information warfare, NATO and EU should respond with a complete set of similar measures. When ruling out the military option, Angela Merkel has justified her current position by addressing the military option in isolation, not seen as one of many tools in the toolbox. Could Western arms have a positive effect on the current situation?
NATO’s Glossary of Terms and Definitions defines a delaying operation as ‘an operation in which a force under pressure trades space for time by slowing down the enemy’s momentum and inflicting maximum damage on the enemy without, in principle, becoming decisively engaged’. Seen in a wider context, the supply of carefully selected military equipment, including weapons and ammunition, to the government in Kyiv could delay further advances of Russian (proxy) forces into Ukraine and thereby gain time that would allow for economic sanctions and other measures to have a longer effect on Kremlin’s will to pursue its chosen path of aggression and expansion. Also, Western weapons might raise casualties among Russian mercenaries to a level where only a partial mobilisation of reservists would allow the Kremlin to pursue its course. But a mobilisation would be widely unpopular among the Russian population. In parallel, Western support would boost morale among Russia’s victims – the Ukrainians.
Let us not forget that high casualty rates, partially inflicted by US arms in combination with a declining economy caused the Soviet leadership to pull out of Afghanistan in 1989. Thus, Western arms could play a supporting role in ending the war in the East.