Those who have been following Russia’s war on Ukraine have no doubt heard the increased buzz about the US potentially supplying lethal arms to the Ukrainian military. While I’m all for supplying Ukraine with military technology (though there’s a big difference between what they want and what they actually need), I find the hype to be ridiculous when you actually look at what US officials are saying. Basically Putin enthusiastically dumps tons of weapons and military vehicles into Ukraine without any reservations whatsoever, while US officials say things like “the US is now seriously considering the possibility of providing lethal weapons…” and the talking heads act like this is a sincere promise, as though the weapons are currently being crated for transport as we speak. Of course on the US side, and only the US side, there are also pundits who object to such transfers, but their arguments are typically poor.
Recently, Vladimir Putin reacted to the question of US arms for Ukraine during a press conference at the BRICS summit. His comments were rather ambiguous, with the first half seeming to indicate no reaction and the last half being a veiled threat about taking more territory in Ukraine. I give you his quotes here, translated by the Ukrainian UNIAN news service.
“This is a sovereign decision [providing lethal aid to Ukraine] of the U.S., whom to sell weapons or supply them for free, and the country that is the recipient of such assistance. We will not be able to influence this process in any way,” Putin said.
According to him, “there are international rules and approaches: the supply of weapons to the conflict zone does not contribute to the peace settlement, but only aggravates the situation.”
“If this happens in this case, this decision will not fundamentally change the situation, in general will not affect the situation change, but the number of victims, of course, may grow,” Putin said. “I want to emphasize so that everyone understands – nothing will change,” the Russian president vowed.
“There is one more point to which those bearing such ideas should pay attention. This is about the fact that the self-proclaimed republics have enough weapons, including those seized from the opposing side – from nationalist battalions and so on. And if American weapons will be delivered to the conflict zone, it will be difficult to say how the proclaimed republics will act. Maybe they will get their weapons to other conflict zones that are sensitive to those who create problems for them,” Putin said.”
As far as interpreting the statement as a veiled threat, it seems that UNIAN focused on the last quote, wherein Putin hilariously claims that the “self-proclaimed republics” are somehow well armed entirely from captured weapons and, presumably, weapons that they either somehow manufactured or acquired from abroad. I tend to think the key takeaway in Putin’s statement comes before that, where he stresses there will be no change. Basically he’s posturing, trying to signal to the West that he won’t back down in Ukraine. To understand why you have to look at what “arming Ukraine” means in Western parlance.
Since the battle of Debaltseve in 2015, “arming Ukraine” has basically been boiled down to one issue- Javelins. For those non-military types out there I’ll give you the quick crash course. The FGM-148 Javelin is arguably the most effective portable anti-tank weapon in the world right now. It is “fire-and-forget,” meaning the operator does not have to guide the missile to its target and therefore can relocate to another position upon firing. It has incredibly long range, over 4 kilometers or nearly 3 miles. It also attacks from the top, where tanks are most vulnerable.
Of course there are some caveats- the system is extremely expensive and it’s not exactly a magic “Make Tanks Go Away” wand. We cannot say for sure how they would have affected the outcome of a battle like Debaltseve. More importantly, plenty of experts have correctly pointed out that Ukraine actually produces plenty of high-quality anti-tank missiles on its own– the problem is that Ukraine’s arms industry often fails to adequately deliver its products to the front. Ukraine’s arms industry also produces another product which is good at knocking out Russian tanks- they’re called other tanks.
But Putin’s quote about arms not making a difference may serve as another reminder of why the arm Ukraine debate should constantly revolve around Javelins. I’ve been saying for some time that Javelins would make little difference given the situation and the Ukrainian government’s position on the war. They can only serve as a deterrent to a Russian attempt to advance in the Donbas, something which they don’t seem interested in doing. Putin’s comment would seem to confirm this. Everything in 2014 from the Crimean annexation to the attempt at creating “Novorossiya” was nothing but a big gamble to see what Russia could get away with. After Minsk II in 2015, Putin knows his limit of advance. So in other words, Javelins would definitely serve as a deterrent, but they’d be deterring something Russia’s not planning to do.
Just to be sure, the Javelins could serve as a deterrent to something I’ve long worried about, especially after the winter of 2016-2017, which is a sort of punitive raid or small offensive aimed solely at isolating and destroying a Ukrainian front-line unit, in a place like Avdiivka or the so-called Svitlodarsk bulge. But beyond this, the only thing Javelins would be good for is sniping the occasional tank which comes up to the front to take potshots from time to time. The Russians could simply halt this practice and rely on their long-range artillery to keep inflicting casualties on Ukrainian forces. They’d be better off for it.
Of course there are ways Ukraine could use Javelins in a more offensive manner to actually retake territory, but the government clearly doesn’t have the stomach for that and doing so would require the military to adopt unconventional, insurgent-style tactics, something that conventional military forces typically don’t do unless they’re absolutely forced to. The Ukrainian military has worked so hard just to achieve a minimum of professionalism as a conventional army that I can’t imagine there’d be anyone among the top brass willing to consider more revolutionary methods of warfare, which is a pity because personally I think Ukraine’s only hope lies in such bold, unconventional strategies and tactics.
Getting back to the topic at hand, one can still read Putin’s final comment as a veiled threat, but it’s most likely an empty one. The meat of this statement is that he’s calling the whole situation a stalemate by saying that new weapons won’t make a difference. For the moment, at least, arms can only serve as a deterrent to something he’s not planning to do.
Of course there is one scenario in which Putin might make good on his threat, and US leaders and other officials had better pay close attention. Although the Russians naturally tell themselves that the US has been arming Ukraine this whole time (this is the a priori justification that Russia’s leaders so often use), if they see the US seriously talking about the matter they might choose to act before those weapons arrive and rule out something like a small-scale offensive. This could serve as a major spoiler and let the Russians chalk up one more operational victory to go along with Crimea, Ilovaisk, and Debaltseve. Therefore if the US actually wants to help and thinks the arms will make a difference, it would be a lot better if they would stop making ambiguous statements and hinting signals at Putin and just provide the missiles. Realistically, what Ukraine actually needs is more advanced electronic warfare platforms, but the rapid shipment and deployment of Javelins could at least prevent or deter a potential “now-or-never” offensive action from the Russian side.
Then again, you might choose to ignore Putin’s comments as another example of his increasingly delusional, rambling statements. After all, this is the guy who seems to have no idea whether he wants to run for president next spring, nor does he seem to have any idea what is supposed to come after him. Perhaps the real key to Putin’s statement is when he said Russia can’t do anything to influence America’s decision. Maybe the confidence from 2014 is beginning to wear off like a crystal meth high, and he’s starting to realize that all this time he’s been punching far above his weight (it’s easy when your opponents are all centrist dipshits who can’t fathom the idea that someone would question their so-called “norms of behavior”). Fatigue, desperation, belligerence? Who can say what’s going through that little man’s mind at this point?