Vladimir Putin has assumed he can seize territory without endangering his grip on power at home, and he’s been right. But what if the U.S. changed that calculus by raising the cost of Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine?
President Trump will soon have a chance to test that question when he receives an imminent recommendation from the State Department and Pentagon to sell Ukraine lethal, defensive weapons such as anti-tank Javelin missiles. These weapons would help Ukrainians defeat Russian armor and make it harder for Mr. Putin’s proxy forces to advance further into Ukraine’s eastern provinces, which the Russians invaded in 2014.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has sought this kind of help for years. But Barack Obama refused on grounds that lethal aid would merely escalate the conflict; he shipped only such non-lethal aid as short-range radar and night-vision goggles. Mr. Putin escalated anyway, violating the Minsk cease-fire accords brokered by John Kerry.
The Russians have declared separatist strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk and built up forces in the occupied areas. Kurt Volker, the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty last week that “there are more Russian tanks in there than in Western Europe combined.” That’s in addition to Russia’s plans to deploy as many as 100,000 troops for military exercises in Belarus on NATO’s front lines this summer.
As President, Mr. Trump hasn’t been the patsy for Mr. Putin that his U.S. critics claim. He endorsed NATO’s deployment of troops to Poland and the Baltic states. Vice President Mike Pence visited Estonia Monday and affirmed the U.S. will “always” stand with its Baltic allies, and on Tuesday he said in Tbilisi that the United States “strongly condemns Russia’s occupation on Georgia’s soil.”
Mr. Trump now has a chance to show he’s no Obama echo and make Mr. Putin pay attention by helping Ukraine, which has shown it is willing to fight for independence. Russia’s invasion has cost 10,000 lives and displaced more than two million civilians. Mr. Poroshenko has plowed money into upgrading Ukraine’s armed forces, embraced U.S. military training, and quietly forged good relations with countries like Poland and Lithuania.
Opponents of lethal aid say Mr. Putin can always trump any Ukrainian effort, but then why hasn’t he done so already? Russia could occupy all of Ukraine if it wanted to, at least for a time, but it fears the political and military cost. The point of lethal aid is to raise the price Mr. Putin pays for his imperialism until he withdraws or agrees to peace under the Minsk terms.
Mr. Putin launched his attack when Kiev had no soldiers protecting the eastern border, but his proxy troops were forced to slow down when the Ukrainians organized and started to inflict casualties. The Russian doesn’t want dead soldiers arriving home before next year’s presidential election.
Bolstering Ukraine’s defenses would also send a message to Mr. Putin that Mr. Trump wants to negotiate with Russia from a position of strength. This could help the U.S. position in Syria, where Mr. Trump has been too willing to accept Russian and Iranian dominance after the fall of Islamic State. Mr. Putin took advantage of Mr. Obama after concluding the American was weak and would never push back. Selling lethal weapons to Ukraine would show the Kremlin those days are over.