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US Defense Secretary’s Visit to Ukraine and Perspectives for US-Ukraine Military Cooperation

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Last month’s (August 24) visit of the United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Ukraine was the first such trip by a Pentagon head in the last ten years. Before arriving in Kyiv, Mattis told reporters he planned to commemorate Ukraine’s Independence Day, underscore Washington’s commitment to the bilateral strategic partnership, as well as express US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He said he would also highlight the US train, equip and advise efforts to build up the capacity of Ukrainian forces (Defense.gov, August 20).

Mattis’ presence at the Independence Day military parade in Kyiv, where Armed Forces personnel of both states marched, had an important political-military significance: the United States sent a clear signal of its continued support for Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.

At the same time, the Ukrainian side looked forward to the possibility of new opportunities to strengthen its self-defense capabilities. Thus, a key topic of discussion during Secretary Mattis’ negotiations with President Petro Poroshenko and Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak was the option for the US to send lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine—an issue that had been under debate in Washington since 2014. Yet, after meeting with Mattis, President Poroshenko said the defensive lethal weapons issue “requires silence before making a decision” (Radiosvoboda.org, August 24). That said, the two sides reached important agreements on expanding military cooperation, including in the fight against cyber threats (President.gov.ua, August 24) and electronic warfare (EW) asset transfers (Liga.net, August 25).
It should be noted that military assistance from the US to Ukraine was and remains the most significant among Western countries. Its total volume reached $770 million in 2014–2017 (UNIAN, August 24), including $175 million in 2017. Next year, $421 million will be allocated for this purpose (Apostrophe.ua, September 10). The US military aid package includes training, equipment and advisory support. Three hundred and fifty US military personnel are training up to five battalions of Ukrainian conventional forces and one battalion of special operations forces. Equipment support includes counter-artillery and counter-mortar radars, secure communications, training aids, logistics infrastructure and IT systems, tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and medical equipment. US advisors are helping Ukraine to implement key defense reforms, such as promoting civilian oversight, greater efficiency and transparency, as well as combatting corruption. The United States and Ukraine also host two exercises each year in Ukraine—a ground forces peacekeeping exercise (“Rapid Trident”) and a naval exercise (“Sea Breeze”) in the Black Sea. These military drills seek to enhance interoperability and strengthen regional security through realistic training, while also sending an important signal of reassurance to Ukraine and other regional partners. Ukraine also regularly participates in other US-hosted exercises elsewhere in Europe (Eurointegration.com.ua, July 12, 2016).

At the same time, the enduring military threats to Ukraine’s national security are forcing the government in Kyiv to consider different possible scenarios of enemy offensive operations against the country, not only on land but from the sea as well. In this regard serious attention will need to be paid to the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, particularly in light of Russia’s creeping annexation of Ukraine’s exclusive maritime economic zone in the northwestern part of the Black Sea (Hromadske Radio, September 9; see EDM, August 3, September 6). Historical experience suggests that when Russian neighbors exhibit signs of weakness, this can be a factor in provoking aggression from the Kremlin. Thus, Russia could consider Ukraine’s critical lack of military sea power to be favorable to the initiation of a sea phase of the conflict. Presently, the probability of such a scenario is growing higher, which in turn could ignite a continental war with the involvement of different countries.

In this precarious situation, comprehensive strategic deterrence is urgently needed for Ukraine. But, deterrence does not arise at the negotiating table—soft power with no hard power in reserve is no power at all, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, has noted (US News, July 25, 2013). In this context, a shrewd defensive lethal weapons transfer to Ukraine would significantly increase the chances that diplomacy would be undertaken by all sides to settle the conflict (Deutsche Welle, August 24). Undoubtedly, Javelin anti-tank missiles would positively influence the effectiveness of Ukraine’s ground defense. However, Javelins by themselves would not be able to provide operational and strategic deterrence to compel the enemy to come to the negotiating table. In this regard, a logical and timely argument was made by Michael Carpenter, the former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Specifically, he has called for sending the Ukrainian military not only anti-tank weapons but also longer-range counter-battery radars, anti-ship missiles, more secure communications, advanced UAVs that can better resist Russian jamming measures, and more Humvees and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAP) for better battlefield mobility, among other things (Radiosvoboda.org, August 15). It is worth focusing on one other important area Carpenter touched upon: rebuilding Ukraine’s navy. Ukraine lost 70 percent of its naval assets when it lost Crimea, leaving hundreds of kilometers of unprotected maritime flank along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. While US security assistance has rightly focused to date on the land forces fighting in Donbas, Ukraine needs additional support to build a “mosquito fleet” to disrupt potential Russian aggression along its coast as well as to protect the country’s exclusive maritime economic zone (see EDM, March 9).

The above-cited measures could collectively contribute to Ukraine developing non-symmetrical, flexible and effective deterrence against Russia. And together with sanctions, this could eventually lead to a final peaceful settlement of the conflict. In this regard, two of Mattis’ messages during his visit to Kyiv look particularly poignant: “Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor, and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor,” and “On defensive lethal weapons, we are actively reviewing it; I will go back now having seen the current situation and be able to inform the Secretary of State and the President in very specific terms what I recommend for the direction ahead” (Defense.gov, Espreso, August 24).

September 6th 2017

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