Skip to main content

Ukraine's strong argument for military aid

By Daniel Treisman
updated 12:05 AM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
U.S. President Barack Obama visits Stonehenge after leaving the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, on Friday, September 5. U.S. President Barack Obama visits Stonehenge after leaving the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, on Friday, September 5.
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
President Obama in Europe
  • Daniel Treisman: Ukraine is much weaker than Russia, needs aid to hold its own
  • He says there are powerful arguments on both sides about whether to send military aid
  • Aid could lead to Russian escalation but doing nothing would condone Putin's actions, he says
  • Treisman: Argument for arming Kiev is stronger than it has ever been

Editor's note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of "The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- As Western leaders gather in Newport, Wales, for this week's NATO summit, the Ukrainian army is taking a pounding from Russia-supported rebel fighters in the country's east and south. The central question now confronting President Barack Obama and colleagues is whether to supply Kiev with heavy arms.

So far, Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two key decision makers, have been reluctant. But with Ukrainian forces reeling before what many are calling an overt Russian invasion, pressure is growing on them to reconsider.

Already NATO has announced plans to strengthen the defense of its frontline members in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. The alliance is planning to create a rapid reaction force, made up of 4,000 troops, to respond within hours to any future Russian incursion.

Daniel Treisman
Daniel Treisman

Whether that will be enough to deter President Vladimir Putin, it will not help Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. Under fierce attack from the rebels, supported now by up to 2,000 Russian troops, the Ukrainian army has been reduced in recent days from seeking victory to merely trying to avoid defeat.

To fight back, it needs anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, drones, spare parts, fuel -- and, most of all, intelligence and strategic advice from Western military planners. Should NATO -- or just the U.S. -- oblige?

There are powerful arguments on both sides.

Equipping Kiev with greater firepower might well provoke an escalation from Russia, whose forces grossly outnumber those of Ukraine. To send more arms into a war zone is cynical if it will merely increase the scale of killing without any realistic prospect of ending the conflict.

Both Obama and Merkel believe their current strategy of graduated economic sanctions will bear fruit in the longer run. Unwilling to contemplate direct military involvement, they worry about getting dragged in inadvertently.

Obama calls on Europe to defend Ukraine
NATO increases presence in Ukraine

Yet to refuse the kind of military support that might enable Kiev to reclaim its eastern territories would allow Putin's violation of the principle of state sovereignty to stand, at least for now. The international order depends upon respect for borders and a rejection of territorial conquest.

The world is watching. China is surely monitoring events in Ukraine closely as it sizes up the South China Sea. Iran may take comfort from the West's divisions as it negotiates over its nuclear program. North Korea may be tempted to disregard U.S. warnings.

And if Putin perceives his Ukrainian gambit to have worked, this may embolden him to push further. The other day, he appeared to boast to European officials that he "could take Kiev in two weeks."

Four times in a row, Putin has upped the ante in the face of Western rhetorical and economic pressure. He sent special forces into Crimea, then annexed the region to Russia, then engineered the rebellion in the east, then, more recently, dramatically increased military support.

In between -- and especially whenever the West looked ready to act -- he floated "peace proposals" and "ceasefires" that have always come to nothing. A new "Seven Point Plan" revealed on Wednesday may or may not turn out to be something more serious.

With more than 750,000 active-duty forces, Moscow's military superiority over Kiev is obvious. But would Putin choose to escalate if the rebels faced a better-armed adversary? Of course, a complete defeat of Moscow's proxies would be embarrassing. But more direct Russian involvement would also carry domestic costs.

At present, Putin's ratings at home are off the charts -- 84% approved of his actions in the latest independent, Moscow-based Levada Center poll. Yet, at the same time, the surveys show the post-Crimea euphoria to be fading and doubts about military engagement growing.

Since March, the percentage of Russians who say they would "support the Russian leadership in the situation of an open military conflict between Russia and Ukraine" has fallen from 74% to 41%. That's less than the 43% who now say they would not support this. The share favoring the incorporation of eastern Ukraine into Russia has fallen from 35% in April to 21% in mid-August.

Russians remain delighted by the annexation of Crimea. But the proportion that say they are ready to bear at least some of the economic cost associated with the territory's incorporation has fallen from 59% in March to 50% today.

Fighting a disorganized and poorly equipped adversary, Putin can have it both ways. He can keep support to the separatist rebels relatively limited and covert, while denying to the public back home that Russia is involved at all.

All this is not to say that Putin would stand by if the West sent arms to Kiev. He may feel strong enough to disregard the hints of growing public anxiety. Nor is it clear that additional weapons would turn the tide.

To win the war, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko needs to build a more effective state, introduce economic reforms and offer potentially loyal citizens of Eastern Ukraine a comprehensive deal that recognizes their minority rights and -- while excluding the thugs and Russian agents that have streamed across the border -- gives local Ukrainians some real autonomy.

For the leaders in Newport, this will remain a tough call. But the argument for arming Kiev is stronger than it has ever been.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Treisman.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?