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The influential new report urging Obama to arm Ukraine, explained

Soldiers from Ukraine's Aydar battalion, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses, burn tires in front of Ukraine's Ministry of Defense to protest a rumored plan to disband the battalion
Soldiers from Ukraine's Aydar battalion, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses, burn tires in front of Ukraine's Ministry of Defense to protest a rumored plan to disband the battalion
(Sergey Starostenko/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images).

An important new think tank report, authored by a group of influential former US officials, advocates a major shift in US policy on the Ukraine conflict. The report argues that the US should send weapons and other military equipment to aid the Ukrainian government as it fights Russia-backed separatist militias and unmarked Russian forces in the eastern part of the country.

The paper arrives at a key moment: the Obama administration is reportedly considering major changes to its Ukraine strategy. A spokesperson for General Philip M. Breedlove, NATO’s current military commander, said Breedlove believes that "defensive equipment and weapons should be part of [the] discussion" on how to help Ukraine. And anonymous officials told the New York Times that senior military and administration figures, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, are now considering whether to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine.

All of that suggests that the report, which articulates the main arguments in favor of military assistance, is likely to be a force in the debate on Ukraine policy at a pivotal moment. Here are the key things to know about the report.

The report describes a strategy to help Ukraine deter Russia, not defeat it

michele flournoy

Former Under-Secretary of Defense Michéle Flournoy is one of the reports authors. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

At the moment, US policy is to only provide "non-lethal" equipment to Ukraine — which basically means "no weapons." The report argues that that should change.

It warns that no military assistance from the US would allow the Ukraine to actually defeat Russia in a direct conflict. "Even with enormous support from the West," it explains, "the Ukrainian army will not be able to defeat a determined attack by the Russian military."

Rather, it argues that the goal should be to give the Ukrainian military enough strength to inflict significant costs on the Russian forces, "sufficient enough that Moscow will deterred from further aggression." If the US and NATO can make further action costlier for Russia, that could encourage Moscow to "to negotiate a genuine settlement that allows Ukraine to reestablish full sovereignty over Donetsk and Luhansk."

Although the report says that the West "cannot lose sight of the status of Crimea," it delicately suggests that it should be left as an "issue for the longer term," rather than a current priority.

It is worth noting, however, that within Russia, Putin has sold the Ukraine war as a bold stand against Western aggression. If the US begins to openly provide military assistance, that could backfire by strengthening Putin's position domestically, or by making it more politically costly for him to compromise on Ukraine. Russia expert Mark Galeotti explained to me in a recent interview that Putin "would love to have a deal" on Ukraine, but needs it to be on his terms. "He needs to be able to go to the Russian people and say 'mission accomplished.'" Putin is unlikely to accept an agreement that would make him appear weak.

The recommendations: anti-armor missiles, plus specialized non-lethal equipment

Ukraine separatist tank (Vadim Massalimov/Kommersant via Getty Images)

Pro-Russian rebels pose on a tank near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. According to the report, the Ukrainian army lacks anti-tank weapons. (Vadim Massalimov/Kommersant via Getty Images)

Russia has moved large numbers of tanks and other armored vehicles into the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, but the Ukrainian army doesn't have weapons that work sufficiently well against armor.

"70 percent of their existing stocks of light anti-armor weapons reportedly do not work," says the report, leaving the Ukrainian army's capabilities "severely lacking." Therefore, the report argues, the U.S. should change its policy and allow lethal assistance, including anti-armor missiles.

It also recommends increases in non-lethal assistance, including surveillance drones, sensitive radar, armored vehicles, and medical supplies. It also recommends secure communications equipment: apparently, Ukrainian forces are currently using non-secure radios and cell phones for their tactical communications, which (unsurprisingly) leaves them vulnerable to surveillance by Russian intelligence.

There is little question that it would help Ukraine militarily if the US provided this kind of assistance. During a war, after all, weapons and equipment come in handy. But what that would do to Russia's incentives is less clear. Would US weapons make the war more costly for Moscow? Or would increased US assistance provide an opportunity for Russia to become more openly involved in the conflict, and thus increase its control over the situation? The former result could, as the report argues, help force Putin to a compromise. But the latter result could have the opposite effect from what the report's authors intend.

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