Better late than never?
After a long period of insisting that soft power and economic sanctions were the way to handle Vladimir Putin’s apparently increasing appetites, the word is out on the street that Barack Obama is looking at supplying the beleaguered forces in Ukraine with some more substantial support in the form of military hardware.
The Obama administration reportedly is reconsidering whether to provide defensive weapons and equipment to Ukrainian forces after Russian-backed separatist rebels dealt them a series of reversals in recent weeks.
The New York Times reports that President Obama has not made a decision on whether to provide more military aid. However, the paper reports that such a move is backed by departing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove.
The White House has previously limited aid to Ukrainian forces to so-called “non-lethal” items, such as body armor, first aid kits and other equipment. But the Times reports that the rebels’ progress across eastern Ukraine has forced Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to revisit the matter.
According to The Times, an independent report due to be released Monday will call for the U.S. to send $3 billion in defensive arms and armor to Ukraine. Among the items specified in the report are anti-armor missiles, reconnaissance drones, and armored Humvees.
The terminology that gets thrown around in these discussions can be a bit… vague. Our previous assistance in the form of emergency medical equipment or even body armor could certainly be termed as “defensive” if not humanitarian in nature. But when you start handing out armor piercing missiles the definitions become somewhat more fuzzy. No matter what you call them, though, I’m sure the Ukrainians will be happy for any help that they can get in the face of the Russian onslaught. It was only in the last few days that reports from the area showed that the battles have not ceased while the world’s attention was more focused on ISIS. The transportation hub of Debaltseve has seen days long fighting, with a press bus coming under fire and civilians being evacuated on the only remaining serviceable road that the locals have access to.
All of this comes as Vladimir Putin is taking a victory lap and handing out some goodies to childhood friends. His boyhood judo partner was just awarded a three billion dollar contract to build a bridge to the Crimean peninsula.
A government order published on Friday named Stroygazmontazh (SGM) as the contractor to build the bridge spanning the Kerch Strait to link Russia’s mainland and Crimea, annexed from Ukraine last March in an act that triggered Western sanctions.
SGM is 51 per cent owned by Arkady Rotenberg, an old friend of Mr Putin who was among the first Russian businessmen to be put under Western visa bans and asset freezes over Crimea’s seizure.
The company’s primary expertise is in building gas pipelines and related infrastructure and has not built a bridge before. It was unclear exactly how long the bridge would be, but the strait varies from around 4 to 15 kilometres in width.
If you ever become depressed over crony capitalism here in America, you can look at Russia and take comfort in seeing that it’s at least worse elsewhere. The guy with the contract isn’t even in the bridge building business, but being friends with Vlad is still very profitable in Russia.
Is a move to hand out more hardware to Ukraine too little too late, or might it still make a difference? It seems to me that when facing down Putin, the prospects for success among our supposed allies in the region depend greatly in how much faith they put in the President’s words. Putin has shown little fear of the wrath of the United States in all of this and the Ukrainians, brave though they may be, don’t have the experience or the firepower to face down the Russian forces alone. This doesn’t seem like enough of a shift in the power balance to turn the tide.