In Other News – Risk Assessment on Providing Ukraine with Heavy Weapons & More – 1/19/2023

January 19, 2023

The risk assessment on providing Ukraine with heavy weapons has rightfully shifted. When Russia first invaded Ukraine almost a year ago, no one was exactly sure how the war was going to play out. Most analysts agreed that Ukraine would put up a strong fight, but few grasped the high-level competency and devotion of Ukrainian forces, and Russia’s inability to launch a quick and efficient military campaign. While NATO did immediately and effectively rally around the Ukrainian cause, since then there have been ongoing debates about the amount and type of weapons that the West should provide to Ukrainian forces.

The main concern has been that Western military aid could shift Putin’s calculus to the detriment of either the Ukrainians, NATO members, or both. Russia could escalate, retaliate, or grow desperate enough to consider using nuclear weapons in response to the influx of Western weapons. Because of this lingering, if unlikely, threat, Washington and allies have continued to calibrate weapons transfers – albeit somewhat more aggressively.

In addition, Ukraine’s military needs have shifted over the course of the war. Early on, to protect Kyiv, Javelin and Stinger missiles were of great necessity, while more recently, longer-range weapons became relevant to the battlefield further east. The Patriot missile defense system remains of high importance to Ukraine’s defense, and both sides are also burning up shells at rapid clip.

This week, speaking via video message on the sidelines of Davos, President Zelenskyy expressed frustration at a “lack of specific weaponry”, noting that winning the war takes more than motivation and morale. Ukraine is asking for heavy tanks, but the West has remained cautious of providing them. Germany is especially under pressure to deliver some tanks but wants to make sure that it doesn’t have a large target on its back from being the only nation to provide them. US Secretary of Defense Austin is in Europe and is expected to discuss the tank issue later this week, and NATO members will also be weighing the risks and viability of such military aid.

Washington has been gauging its support to Ukraine as the fight has evolved, but so far Putin’s main response to the weapons transfers has been a shift in his messaging to the Russian public, not his battlefield technique. For several months now, Russia has asserted that by sending substantial weapons to Ukraine, NATO is fighting a proxy war. This line has played into Putin’s false but insidious narrative that the West’s entire raison d’etre is to make Russia disappear.

Just this week, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov likened the US approach to Russia to that of the Nazis to Jews during the Holocaust. This outlandish and offensive statement demonstrates just how much the Kremlin is struggling to convince Russian citizens that their nation is under existential threat– and that without a victory in Ukraine they will be wiped off the map. The force of this fictious narrative, combined with Putin’s total disregard for human life and the number of bodies he’s willing to sacrifice, makes the Russians an enduring threat. Without the heavier weapons that could shift the Russian calculus, it feels like this battle could be interminable.

Among Ukraine’s supporters, there have been arguments that the Ukrainians won’t know how to use the heavy Western weaponry, which has been mostly disproven, or that there will be problems repairing the equipment, which could be a concern. But the issue really is about how the heavier weapons will help shift Ukraine from a defensive to an offensive position. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, our response was weak and established a dangerous precedent for the global democratic order. This time, our response has been much stronger, but we’re at the point now where there’s an opportunity to do more.

This all comes in the backdrop of global economic instability, and while Washington just approved a new $2.5 billion military aid package, concerns remain about sustaining this kind of expenditure long term. But as Zelenskyy remarked in his speech to the US Congress, it’s an investment, not charity. The sooner we can give the Ukrainians what they need to push back the Russians, the better it will be for us all.

Lula’s holding firm to his leadership and agenda, but the road looks rocky. On January 8, thousands of Brazilians launched an insurrection where the Brazilian security forces were either unable or unwilling to contain the violence. After former Brazilian President Bolsonaro lost to Lula in a tight election last fall, many Bolsonaro supporters started camping out in protest next to the military barracks in Brasilia. But the protestors became violent soon after Lula assumed office, and the insurrection has led many in Brazil to question if the nation’s democratic foundation remains solid.

Brazilian security forces are now under scrutiny, and recently Lula announced that there were many “colluding agents” in the insurrection- particularly from the Military Police and Armed Forces. Indeed, there are indications that military support of the insurrection was more widespread than initially believed. Investigative findings have demonstrated that many military members, who were often friends or family members with the protestors, offered legitimacy and protection to the perpetrators of January 8.

Lula has been taking active measures to dismiss members of the military who were seconded to staff a variety of offices within the Presidential Palace and replacing them with civilians. He’s also punishing associated officials: Anderson Torres, who had served as Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice and was serving as Secretary of Justice for the Federal District under Lula, was arrested and the Governor of Brasilia has been suspended for negligence in managing public safety.

So far, Lula seems to either have enough support within the military or there isn’t an appetite to take further action against him. But the episode could be a harbinger of growing political instability. The trajectory of the peaceful protests-to-insurrection also raises the critical question of how political protest turns into violent conspiracy, and at what point should the government intervene. Further, it highlights concerns about stability in greater Latin America, and underlines how critical it is for international leaders to publicly affirm the legitimacy of democratically elected candidates worldwide.