These arguments are absolutely correct in pointing out that the clash over Ukraine is more than military and it demands a more intense and extensive involvement of the West. Indeed, the military conflict in the Donbas region is only the most visible – violent! – part of the larger competition for the political fate of Ukraine and the wider regional order. We often pay too much attention to the battlefield and lose sight of the larger war. As, in a broader context, Nadia Schadlow points out here, a “national security decision-making [that] prioritizes military means over political ends … confuses activity (such as the bombing of enemy positions) with progress.” In the case of the current war, Ukraine does need to be rebuilt as a state, starting from its collapsing economy to its shaky political institutions. What the West needs to do is to surge economically and politically on the side of Kiev. Russia, itself in a decrepit state, has little to offer in exchange. The competition over Ukraine needs to be moved away from the military, and the West should play in the arena in which it has a comparative advantage over Russia.
The Minsk ceasefire, and whatever other diplomatic contortions may follow, are therefore welcome because they supply a hopefully prolonged pause that will allow the rebuilding of Ukraine. As Ulrich Speck points out, “A stronger Ukrainian state -- more functional, less corrupt, and better able to deliver to its citizens -- would be much more capable to resist Russian aggression.” Similarly, Anne Applebaum wrote that “What the West needs now is not merely a military policy but a comprehensive, long-term strategy designed to reinforce Ukrainian statehood and integrate Ukraine into Europe over many years.”
The reasoning and the intentions of these arguments are not wrong. Ukraine does need a full spectrum support from the West, and, I would suggest, from Europe in particular whose reputation as a pole of economic and political attraction is at stake.
But where this line of thinking about Ukraine goes wrong is when it ignores or discounts the need to arm Kiev now. Ukraine cannot be rebuild tomorrow without arming it today. There are four reasons for this.
First, very broadly, any serious state-building effort must include its armed forces. State sovereignty does not exist simply by fiat but rests on the ability of the political authorities to maintain order within well defended borders. Of course, there are always trade offs between “guns” and “butter” but for a state located near a predatory power (Russia) it is safer and wiser to err on the “guns” side of the balance. Rebuilding purely the “butter” portion of Ukraine, without shoring up its “guns”, will not suffice. It would constitute only a partial state building effort, and ineffective to boot.
Second, it will be dangerous because it will not deter Russia. Putin will not be deterred by a well functioning Ukraine, economically strong and politically immaculate (something that in any case would take years at best). On the contrary, the mere aspiration of the Ukrainian people to clean up their political leadership expressed a year ago in the Maidan Square was a spur to invade Crimea and then Eastern Ukraine. What would a full out rebuilding of the political and economic structures – clearly independent and most likely very westward leaning – cause Russia to do? Those who fear a Russian military escalation ought to fear the promise of Ukrainian political and economic success.
Another way to put this is that the fact that the competition is occurring, so to speak, in two different languages – Russia communicates in military terms, the West in economic – does not mean that there are equally effective. “Guns” can destroy “butter.” A militarily weak Ukraine on a path to political and economic reforms is an invitation for further and most likely larger Russian attacks.
Related to the previous is the third reason. It is dangerous not to arm Ukraine now because the current balance of forces leaves the initiative on the ground to Russia. Assuming that the Minsk ceasefire actually starts and holds, Russia can escalate – or turn on and off the war – as it pleases. The costs of doing so are limited. The ceasefire will hold only because Russia chooses to hold it, and not because it has reached some sort of stalemate. Besides the scolding and yet strategically sterile verbiage of a few Western leaders (and the numbers of them is decreasing as voices for a new détente or rapprochement with Russia are becoming more prominent), there is nothing to prevent Putin from continuing the creeping invasion of Ukraine.
Finally, the fourth reason why focusing on rebuilding the political and economic but not the military foundations of Ukraine is wrong is that this misses the timeframe of the competition. Mariupol is at risk today; economic reforms will have an effect months and years from now. Kharkiv may be wracked by Russian sponsored instability next week; the purification of Ukraine’s political institutions will take much longer. The long-term victory of Ukraine cannot occur without its short-term survival.
Ukraine cannot win the war against Putin’s predation only by reforming. It needs to win by arresting Putin’s military march first. And to do this, the West needs to arm Ukraine.