Managing escalation risk and arming Ukraine

The desire to manage escalation risk – especially the risk of a nuclear attack – has clearly led the United States to withhold weapons from Ukraine.  We may also be slow-walking delivery of weapons or limiting quantities to reduce escalation risk, although perceived delays could be due to training and logistics issues or our own readiness concerns; even experts disagree about this.

The Ukrainian attack on the Kerch bridge and the Russian missile/drone attack on civilian and infrastructure targets again raise the issue of why we are not supplying the Ukrainians with more and better weapons, such as ATACMS that could easily finish off the Kerch bridge if the rail line is still usable.  (It is possible that the bridge attack and the earlier attack on the airbase in Crimea used missiles supplied by us or an ally; but even if this is true we are clearly limiting supplies.)

If we want to provide Ukraine with ATACMS or some other currently taboo weapons system, but we are worried about escalation risk, why not tie it to Russian strikes against civilian targets: “Every time Russia strikes a civilian target, we will provide Ukraine with ATACMS to strike back at Russian military targets.”

This is my main suggestion.  What follows is just me trying to understand why we seem to be limiting our support to Ukraine.  It’s just not clear to me what the logic is.

I certainly understand why Biden refused to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine, an action that would have put U.S. pilots in direct conflict with Russian forces.  It’s a bit more difficult to see why we would limit weapons that can reach Russian territory, or slow-walk weapons that might protect Ukrainian civilians or allow Ukraine to achieve a faster victory, saving Ukrainian (and Russian) lives and alleviating knock-on economic hardship around the world.  Maybe the goal is to test Putin out and look for signs of an escalatory response, but it’s not entirely clear how this works.  Won’t he make empty threats up until the time the threats aren’t empty?  And if we blink first, his threats work even if he would not follow through.  If we are going to withhold weapons, why not at least make this contingent on Russia not attacking civilians?

Perhaps the purpose of limiting the supply of weapons to Ukraine is to prolong the war.  It’s not clear that this makes sense if our goal is to manage escalation risk.  Slowing Ukraine down reduces the immediate risk of escalation, but at some point Putin will be faced with defeat.  Perhaps there is some advantage in delaying this moment, but I’m not sure what it is, or if it’s military or political.  The best way to minimize the risk of a catastrophic escalation may simply be to shorten the war, since the risk of catastrophe will continue until there is a cessation of hostilities.  

Perhaps it is important to preserve as far as possible the perception that it is Ukraine that is defeating Russia, since it is clear that Ukraine has no desire or ability to attack Russia itself, whereas a victory perceived as due to NATO or the United States could be more threatening to Russia.  I think we should emphasize that this is Ukraine’s war to fight, and that we only support a defensive war, but that is not a reason to keep arms from Ukraine.  (Rather than withholding weapons, why not say clearly that we only support a defensive war on Ukraine’s part and that there is absolutely no threat to Russia’s territorial integrity.)

A clearer commitment to Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of the invasion might have increased the likelihood that Putin would look to end the war, or at least that he would have tried harder to keep that possibility politically open.  Obviously, our ability to get Putin to back down by providing more support to Ukraine is limited.  It has been clear for months now that Putin is unlikely to end his war short of a near-total defeat, and the recent fake annexation vote and mobilization have made a political settlement even more difficult to envision.  (This may have been part of their purpose.)   Still, the possibility that Europe and the United States will falter in their support for Ukraine has been the only factor working in Putin’s favor for some time now, and making that less relevant by delivering more and better weapons as soon as possible might help bring Putin to the negotiating table sooner.

Another possible reason to limit weapon supplies is to keep the Ukrainian army from getting strong enough to invade Crimea, which may be an escalatory threshold Biden is loath to cross.  If Putin is really willing to go nuclear, a Ukrainian invasion of Crimea seems like the most plausible trigger to me.  This still seems like an uncertain justification for limiting weapons, and at this point it may be too late to prevent Ukraine from attacking Crimea.  In any event, although I can see why the idea makes people nervous, there are arguments in favor a Ukrainian assault on Crimea.  Finally, I do not understand the logic behind Biden’s recent remarks about the risk of nuclear war and the need to give Putin an exit ramp.  On their face, his remarks seem likely to make Putin and our allies doubt our resolve.  It seems to me that we should focus on making credible commitments to severely punish Russia for using nuclear weapons and to at least partially roll back sanctions if Russia accepts defeat without nuclear escalation.  The post-war, post-Putin future of Russia is highly uncertain, but we at least need to try to help Russia trundle unsteadily down the path to democracy.