Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Should the Biden Administration Provide Ukraine with any Weapons (Short of Nuclear, Chemical, or Biological Weapons) it Requires to Win the War?

| Mar. 21, 2024

BACKGROUND

There is intense debate on whether the Biden Administration should supply Ukraine with any necessary weapons to ensure victory. Advocates argue this support is crucial for Ukraine's self-defense and deterrence against further aggression, while opponents raise concerns about escalation risks and the potential strain on US military stockpiles. This debate requires careful consideration of the strategic and geopolitical consequences of military aid.

ABOUT THE STUDY GROUP

Over the course of six sessions, this study group, led by Dr. Karen Donfried, is examining key foreign policy debates flowing from Russia’s war against Ukraine.  The objective is to provide a deeper understanding of the geopolitics of the war in Ukraine and the implications for U.S. interests. Students discuss and debate the weekly topic with guest speakers. 

AGREE

Enhanced Ukrainian Defense and Offensive Capability: The Biden Administration can broaden Ukraine’s military arsenal to drastically improve its defensive operations and offensive capabilities to reclaim territories. In doing so, the U.S. could improve Ukraine’s position on the battlefield, particularly as a dearth of military supplies begins to take a toll. Additionally, the U.S. would be able to greatly improve Ukraine’s long-term security and defense capabilities.  

Deter Future Russian Aggression: By providing Ukraine with an unrestricted flow of weapons it requires to win the war—particularly advanced weaponry—the Biden Administration can greatly reduce the likelihood of future Russian territorial advances. Consequently, the precarious situation along the frontlines could stabilize and Ukraine could have a chance of tipping the balance of the war in its favor.

Moral and Strategic Support for Democracy: Unrestricted U.S. support for Ukraine through advanced military assistance could send a decisive signal of long-term support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and democratic governance. In doing so, the U.S. can reinforce its strategic values in the face of authoritarian aggression while simultaneously promulgating a message of empowerment to democratic allies across the international community.

Pressure Russia towards Diplomacy: The Biden Administration should provide Ukraine with any weapons required to tilt the balance of power and pressure Russia to weigh diplomatic channels more earnestly. By contributing to a more formidable Ukrainian defense apparatus, the U.S. can signal to Russia the increasing costs associated with a continued invasion. Such a decision could potentially incentivize Moscow to explore peaceful resolutions and cease hostilities, aiming to avoid further military and economic losses among others.

Adaptability and Warfare Resilience: In a more tactical sense, unrestricted military provisions to Ukraine can ensure its forces are able to adapt to dynamic battlefield conditions and counter a diverse range of Russian military tactics. Moreover, Ukraine would be able to mount more effective defensive and offensive operations by preparing Ukrainian forces to neutralize advanced Russian military technologies and maintain operational momentum. Ultimately, Ukraine would then secure a strategic advantage on the battlefield.

Disagree

Risk of Escalation and Nuclear Concerns: There are valid concerns that unrestricted military provisions to Ukraine might provoke Russia into escalating the conflict—either through intensified military actions at a level never before seen in Ukraine thus far or to a point where Russia feels cornered into deploying tactical nuclear weapons as a form of deterrence. As a result, the U.S. and its allies could risk a much broader confrontation in which NATO directly engages with Russia militarily.

Resource Allocation and Opportunity Costs: A U.S. decision to bolster Ukraine’s advanced weaponry could have implications for other vital interests such as the U.S. and allies’ capabilities being jeopardized due to fewer resources to address geopolitical threats elsewhere (e.g. North Korea, Iran) or hurting attention devoted to domestic needs. In particular, such a move coerces the US to make tough decisions on the prioritization of military aid over other strategic investments. This highlights the delicate balance between addressing the immediate needs of Ukraine and maintaining preparedness for other potential challenges whether globally or domestically.  

Depletion of U.S. and Allied Stockpiles: Any increased allocation of U.S. military aid, particularly advanced weaponry, to Ukraine risks depleting the U.S. strategic reserves which could eventually leave the U.S. less prepared to respond to equally as pressing global security threats. A reduction in readiness could very well affect the U.S. rapid response capabilities in the event of an unforeseen crisis.

Challenges in Defining Victory: It is important to first define what victory in Ukraine means as it does not merely cover military success but also political, territorial, and moral considerations. Consequently, victory may range from regaining all its internationally recognized territories to achieving some form of sustainable peace that guarantees Ukrainian sovereignty. Thus, the ambiguity and breadth of what constitutes “victory” complicate strategy formulation and whether the U.S. should allow for an unrestricted flow of weaponry to Ukraine. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Should the Biden Administration Provide Ukraine with any Weapons (Short of Nuclear, Chemical, or Biological Weapons) it Requires to Win the War?.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 21, 2024.