A Ukrainian soldier stands watch on a road between Debaltseve and the Ukrainian-controlled town of Artemivsk, in the Donetsk region, on Feb. 2, 2015.
Credit: Manu Brabo

Should the West provide arms to Ukrainian forces?

The answer, according to eight former US officials, is a resounding yes.

In a report released on Feb. 2, the officials, including two former US ambassadors to Ukraine and an ex-NATO military commander, called for the US to supply $1 billion in lethal aid to Ukraine this year.

Ukraine, which has been entrenched in an unrelenting and deadly war with pro-Russian separatists, should receive light anti-armor missiles to defend itself given "the large numbers of armored vehicles that the Russians have deployed in Donetsk and Luhansk," the report's authors said.

The overarching rationale for arming Ukraine's army is to bolster its defense capabilities to "allow it to inflict significant costs on the Russian military, should the Russians launch new offensive operations," they stated.

The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal report that the White House is considering whether it should send weapons to Ukraine.

"Top White House advisers to the president are expected to discuss Ukraine options this week, but officials said it isn't clear if a decision will be made then," The Wall Street Journal's Julian E. Barnes and Adam Antous report.

There are approximately 65,000 fighters deployed in what is called the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) zone in eastern Ukraine, the majority from the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, according to Teksty.org, a site based in Kyiv providing news and analysis on the war.  The rest is made up of a number of volunteer militias of the National Guard, including the Donbass battalion.

While the number of pro-Russian separatists is difficult to pin down (reports suggest the figure is in the thousands), rebel head Alexander Zakharchenko said Monday that the separatists want to add 100,000 men to their forces, the BBC reports

"It does not mean we will take in 100,000, but the joint army of Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics' army should be 100,000," Zakharchenko was quoted as saying by the BBC.

Although Ukraine's armed forces have made gains in the war wrecking the east, they have also suffered debilitating strategic defeats, in addition to the mounting death toll. More than 5,000 people have been killed since the unrest erupted in November 2013, the United Nations says.

Most notable of these defeats is the symbolic and strategic loss of the Sergei Prokofyev International Airport in Donetsk last month.

The fall of the airport opens up the possibility of providing an avenue to resupply separatists, if neighboring towns fall into their hands, The Economist notes

One possible reason for Ukraine's defeats is the sophistication of electronic warfare employed by separatists. 

"It is very difficult for Ukrainian forces to be able to operate on radios, telephones and other non-secure means of communications because their opponents have such an exceptional amount of jamming capability," US Lieutenant General Ben Hodges told Agence France-Presse. 

Meanwhile, the suffering of civilians caught in war zones is worsening with the recent resurgence in fighting in eastern Ukraine. 

Many, including children and the elderly, are seeking protection from shelling in underground shelters in Donetsk.


As with any protracted global conflict, the debate over finding political and military solutions to end Ukraine's war is as convoluted as the war itself.

Several editorials in American newspapers are in favor of the West arming Ukraine.

"For now, however, the United States and its European Union allies must consider how to stop the ongoing military aggression in Ukraine and deter Mr. Putin from further adventures," The Washington Post's editorial board argues. "The clear answer is direct military support to the Ukrainian army."

Some experts say the US is well placed to assist the country.

"The US has the best kit, it is probably in the best position to control its use, and is less vulnerable to bilateral economic or energy-supply pressures," Timothy Garten Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford University, writes in an op-ed in The Guardian.

But if the West were to boost Ukraine's military, it might lead to an escalation in the war for it could "force Moscow to counter by increasing its own support for the separatists," Radio Free Europe points out.

Others contend that Ukraine needs to step up and make better use of its resources at hand by implementing a well-defined and precise defense plan. 

Mark Galeotti, clinical professor of Global Affairs at New York University, writes:

First and most fundamentally, there is no meaningful strategy, the essential game plan that ought to drive every aspect of the war. Is it to win the war on the battlefield by encircling and besieging Donetsk? ... It is hard to tell how far this is a failing of political leadership, military leadership or operational command.

Some heads of state and analysts are maintaining their stance on finding a diplomatic resolution to the war.

On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for renewing a ceasefire deal between Ukraine and separatists that has essentially failed (again). Merkel spoke out against supporting Ukraine through weapons delivery.

International watchdog group Human Rights Watch, which has been investigating attacks in eastern Ukraine, said there has been a "failure to enforce justice for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law" since the conflict started.

"Two of the deadliest attacks with civilian casualties in recent fighting were due to the unlawful use of unguided rockets by the Russian-backed rebels," Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "All sides should reject the use of these weapons in populated areas."

More from GlobalPost: Ukraine's war is getting worse, and not everyone wants to fight

GlobalPost's senior correspondent Dan Peleschuk in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed research for this piece.

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