Should Britain Be Arming Ukraine?

Before we throw weapons at the Ukrainian crisis, we need to ask two fundamental questions: does Ukraine really need our arms? And what would happen to them once the violence ended?

In today's Guardian Newspaper Alexander Temerko, a Ukrainian-born British businessman and a major donor to the Conservative party, wrote an article titled 'Britain should arm Ukraine.'

In it the multi-millionaire argued that both Cameron and Obama should be sending weapons and ammunition to support the government in Kiev. It was an article framed very much in terms of geo-political engagement - a call, in a sense, for Ukraine to be embraced by the West. For it not to be crushed under Russia's boot-heel.

Perhaps it is natural for Mr Temerko to argue such a case. There would be plenty of economic benefit for closer ties between Kiev and London. But nowhere in the article does he explain why Ukraine so desperately needs American and British arms and ammunition.

It's a point that needs to be considered. After all, in 2012 Ukraine was reported to be the fourth-largest arms exporter in the world, with about $1.3 billion sales.

Perhaps ironically, Russia was by far its biggest client. The Russian government signed a $15 billion trade agreement with ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in December 2013 that sought to align the two countries' defence industries. President Putin has even warned that disruption to Ukrainian supplies would harm Russia's own military capability.

Bloomberg has reported over half of Russia's nuclear arsenal was built in Ukraine or is equipped with a Ukraine-made navigation system. Russia, it says, 'would struggle without the 400 Ukraine-made engines it imports every year for its military helicopters or the $10 million it pays Ukraine to service its intercontinental ballistic missile system.' Clearly, the conflict has harmed Ukrainian arms sales - with China reportedly refusing to pay $14 million for a landing hovercraft.

But it begs the question - if Ukraine has the capability of supplying the Russian and the Chinese armies then why can it not supply its own? It might well be the type of weapons needed, but perhaps this call to arm Ukraine is also partly born from the fact there are major profits to be made. The US has already signed an arms trade deal with Ukraine.

Arms profits aside, there is also the fundamental question of what would happen to the arms, if the US and UK supplied them, once the dogs of war were reigned in. Who is to say they wouldn't just be shipped out to fuel other conflicts?

Certainly, Ukraine has historically played a major role in the proliferation of small arms around the world.

With the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Soviet military units left the lands they had occupied and headed home. As they headed for Moscow, countless guns were left unsecured and ripe for the picking. As much as 2.5 million tons of ammunition and as many as 7 million small arms and light weapons were reportedly left behind in at least 184 depots. In Odessa, the imperial city of a million people, some 1,500 standard freight cars of ammunition were abandoned. All in all, it worked out at about one hundred firearms being left for each Ukrainian soldier.

This newly liberated country quickly began to offload its assets. In 1992 a commission concluded the nation's military stocks were worth $89 billion. By 1998 $32 billion of it had been stolen and resold. As Andrew Feinstein wrote in his book The Shadow World, 'So explosive were the [commission's] findings that the investigation was suddenly closed down, seventeen volumes of its work vanished and its members were cowed into silence.'

It is a silence of smuggling that appears to continue today.

In early November 2013 the Greek coastguard intercepted a Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship called the Nour-M near the Imia islets of the cobalt-blue waters of the eastern Aegean. Allegedly, there were 20,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles on board, along with 32 million rounds of ammunition. The ship had left Ukraine a few days before.

According to the vessel's captain, Hüseyin Yilmaz, their final destination was the Libyan port of Tripoli. He said the Nour-M's cargo had been purchased by their Ministry of Defence, and all was above board. Greece's media reported differently. They said that the Syrian port of Tartus was listed as the ship's final destination by marine traffic systems, and the captain had typed Syria into the navigation system, changing it to Libya only after his boat was challenged. If this was true, then the ship was breaking an arms embargo.

The Nour-M was intriguingly to sink within thirty days of its seizure, battered into the depths by a storm off the port of Rhodes. The Greek authorities have never clarified what happened to the 20,000 rifles. But if, as the authorities and media suspected, the Nour-M was indeed smuggling arms out of the Black Sea, it would have been part of a long tradition of Ukraine's involvement in international illicit activities.

Britain and the US supplying Ukraine with arms has to be viewed in this light.

Weapons caches that were 'liberated' in the Arab Spring have fuelled the militant violence of the wider region. Soviet small arms, distributed via Ukraine, have long fuelled nasty wars in Africa.

So, before we throw weapons at the Ukrainian crisis, we need to ask two fundamental questions: does Ukraine really need our arms? And what would happen to them once the violence ended?


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