Will the transfer of advanced weapons to Ukraine lead to a widening war?

The U.S. and Germany on Tuesday moved to send advanced weapons to Ukraine to blunt a Russian offensive in the east. Steven Simon, who worked on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton and Obama administrations and a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology joins Nick Schifrin to discuss the transfer of arms and the importance of diplomacy.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For a different perspective, we turn to Steven Simon. He worked on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton and Obama administrations. He's now a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank.

    Steven Simon, welcome to the program.

    You heard Amanda Sloat their give their argument for why the administration is providing these rockets, providing these HIMARS. Why do you believe that the administration should not be providing them?

  • Steven Simon, Former National Security Council Official:

    Well, it's not that the administration shouldn't provide weapons to Ukraine. I think they obviously should.

    And I think the administration is doing a good job in calibrating the kind of military assistance that they're providing to Ukraine to defend its territory against Russian attack and the kind of war crimes the Russians seem to be carrying out in territory they have taken. So, in principle, supplying weapons is fine.

    Ukrainian assurances that the weapons won't be used to attack targets within Russia need to be taken with a grain of salt, of course. The use will depend on battlefield contingencies that are hard to predict. The White House clearly realizes this, which is why it's providing missile launching capability with only a 40-to-50-mile range.

    The issue with these transfers is not that they're taking place, but that they are unconditional, or they seem to be. Since a negotiated end to the conflict is in the U.S. interest, as Secretary Blinken himself and others in the administration have stressed, these arms transfers should oblige the Ukrainian government to participate in such a process when it is launched.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, let me just interrupt there.

    So you're saying oblige the Ukrainian government to follow a diplomatic path. But, as we know, U.S. and Ukrainian and European officials say that Russia is the one that is not taking this diplomacy seriously. So how can Ukraine oblige that, when it's Russia that is not pursuing a diplomatic path?

  • Steven Simon:

    Well, for the moment, military assistance to Ukraine is meant to provide leverage on Russia, but it should also provide leverage on Kyiv, both countries.

    As President Biden wrote yesterday, the U.S. and Ukraine have the same goals, expulsion of Russian forces from Ukraine.But we might differ on how we get there. It's possible, after all, that it won't be militarily feasible for the Ukrainians to do it on their own.

    I mean, at this stage, both combatants look like they want to slug it out, despite the high price they're paying. But only a high-powered diplomatic initiative can probe the intentions of the combatants and determine whether they're prepared to contemplate a deal of some kind.

    Now, conditioning arms transfers on a willingness to participate in such a process would make good sense for just that reason. Now, whether the administration can take this step is open to question. We're embarked on a different path right now. And we will probably have to wait to see how it plays out.


  • Nick Schifrin:

    And let me — sorry, let me just interrupt — interrupt again.

    Why is it either/or? For many weeks, you saw Ukrainian and Russian officials debating, meeting. Those talks have broken down. Zelenskyy says that he's happy to meet President Putin anywhere at any time, and Russia refuses.

    So can't the military support continue, as the encouragement to diplomacy continues as well?

  • Steven Simon:

    Well, I think, as you said before, there's a moral hazard on the Ukrainian side for providing these weapons — that emerges from providing these weapons, because, as you noted, Zelenskyy could look at these weapons and say, hey, they're pretty good, so, as long as they keep coming, I don't have to negotiate, and I can rely on Putin's negativism and the lack of a high-powered diplomatic initiative that commands, that really demands the participation of the parties because of the energy and scope that the diplomatic initiative entails.

    So, it's quite important to actually leap in and do something diplomatically, because the potential for escalation in a high-tempo war of attrition is quite severe. And the blowback of rapid, severe escalation will fall on the United States, as well as — as well as other parties.

    So, a diplomatic initiative is necessary. And if conditioning arms sales on the participation in such an effort is doable, then it seems to me to make sense, under the circumstances, as an incentive to participate.

    Now, you're absolutely right. Well, actually, there have been meaningful diplomatic initiatives that have taken place thus far, under Turkey, for example, in terms of access to the Black Sea, and waters outside of the Black Sea for the export of grain to the global market.

    So there have been some negotiations, but negotiations between capitals, between Kyiv and Moscow, you're right. They haven't taken off. But they haven't really been tried at a high level. And right now…


  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Steve Simon, I'm sorry to interrupt, but we're going to have to leave it there. But we got that point.

    And thank you very much, Steve Simon. Appreciate it. Thank you very much.

Listen to this Segment