Will the US Send Military Aid to Ukraine? Why?

The big foreign policy issue today is whether the US should send “defensive” weapons to the government of Ukraine to help it repulse the latest offensive by pro-Russian separatists within its borders. Russia has recently been reeling from US-led economic sanctions and a huge drop in petroleum prices (led by Saudi Arabia, much to the advantage of the US). Now the Russian government is striking back with coordinated attacks within the eastern borders of Ukraine. And while the UE leadership is trying to negotiate a cease-fire that has a possibility of holding, members of Congress and other political activists in the US are calling for the arming of the Ukrainian forces. The Obama administration is considering this step, but has not yet indicated how it will respond to the request for military aid.

I suspect that the US will provide some, perhaps limited, weaponry to the Ukraine government for its military to use against the Russian-armed insurgents. The reasons have little to do with the merits of the cause of Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity. The real impetus has more to do with the needs – or should I say expectations? – of the US weapons industry (euphemistically called the “defense industry”).

Let’s look at how it works. Foreign governments can buy US military goods, subject to legal provisions of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). In 2011, US foreign weapons sales totaled $66.3 billion, 77.4% of global weapons sales totaling $85.3 billion. Russia, the number two arms seller, accounted for $4.8 billion (5.6%).

Remember, these weapons are manufactured and sold by private sector corporations. The US government is among the major customers of these corporations. But the government of Ukraine is financially strapped. The country’s economy is in the midst of a prolonged free fall, squeezed by Russia and dependent on aid from the EU. It is in no position to buy weapons on the world market and the EU and NATO governments are reluctant to provide military aid.

Enter the US.

While the US maintains a global military presence, the need for new weapons has diminished with the cessation of regular combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And if the weapons pipeline is not continually primed, US weapons-makers risk losing their competitive edge to foreign (read European and Chinese) arms manufacturers. So the US government buys weapons and “donates” them, often under intricate lease-purchase-but-ultimately-free agreements.

I believe that this is what will happen in the case of Ukraine. The US weapons industry is a major source of congressional campaign contributions and its lobbyists are quite influential. The desire of this industry for constantly increasing profits routinely results in congressional demands for increased “defense” spending, whether it is needed for the national defense or not. One approach is to simply legislate the purchase of expensive weapons systems and machinery that will never be used in war. Another is to produce an unending stream of weapons that will be consumed in combat and require continuous replacement. With luck – for the arms merchants, anyway – that’s what will happen in Ukraine.


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