Ever since the crisis over Ukraine began last year, a minority of commentators, including the present author, have cautioned about the dangers of inundating the country with weapons, and the risk of fueling extremist groups that could destabilize the country and create blowback for the West, as the United States’ anti-Soviet policy in Afghanistan did in the 1980s. A new CNN report suggests US officials are well aware of these risks.
A suite of anonymous sources told the network that Washington has no way of tracking the weapons they send or knowing where they end up when they enter Ukraine, one of Europe’s largest arms trafficking markets even before the war. “It drops into a big black hole, and you have almost no sense of it at all after a short period of time,” one source told CNN.
According to the report, both military analysts and US officials acknowledge that the massive quantity of arms being supplied by more than twenty governments could in the long term “wind up in the hands of other militaries and militias that the US did not intend to arm.” Ukrainian troops pick up trucks loaded with weapons mostly in Poland, states the report, before driving them across the border, at which point it’s entirely up to Ukrainians how and where they’re given out.
This isn’t the first time Western officials and analysts have acknowledged this. Back in March, a senior US military official told Al Jazeera that “we believe that risk is worth taking right now.” Earlier this month, one expert suggested to Radio-Canada that while “after the war, it could be a problem for the extreme right to find itself armed,” it was justified by the “exceptional results on the ground.”
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky announced early on in the war that he would give out weapons to anyone willing to fight, suggesting a less-than-judicious attitude about where they end up — understandable given the circumstances, but no less risky. Besides this, members of white supremacist and other far-right extremist groups have infiltrated the country’s military and become part of its National Guard, another potential direct point of access to the arms. The Organized Crime Index notes that most of the arms trafficking inside Ukraine takes place domestically, but is also linked to weapons black markets in nearby Eastern and Central European states and in EU countries.
Ukraine’s ultranationalists have been key drivers of instability within the country over the last decade, toppling one government through violence, attacking marginalized groups and political opponents, and threatening and carrying out anti-government violence across multiple administrations, including Zelensky’s, often to derail peace efforts. Various voices — from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center and the counterterror Soufan Center, to human rights organizations and the mainstream press — warned before the war that the Ukrainian far right not only had their sights set on a coup, but that they stood at the nexus of an international movement of far-right militants looking to take power in Europe, organizing in ways similar to jihadist networks.
As both the CNN and Al Jazeera reports make clear, US officials have judged that while these risks are very real, they’re outweighed by the risks that would be run if Ukraine lacked sufficient arms to defend itself against Russia’s aggression. But this raises the question of US intentions. Is the purpose of the arms shipments to strengthen Ukraine’s hand in reaching a negotiated settlement to the conflict — a process from which the Biden administration and allied governments have so far held themselves aloof? Or is it, as some US and British officials have suggested, to turn Ukraine into an Afghanistan-like quagmire for Russia, weakening it and perhaps even triggering regime change, while sending a message to China in the process?
All the while, there has been too little public discussion of these questions, or of the potential ripple effects of the weapons ending up in the wrong hands — their most immediate victims likely being Ukrainians themselves, as well as countries in its proximity. After NATO toppled Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, for instance, the country’s massive weapons stockpiles were trafficked out of the country in the ensuing chaos, where they soon fueled violence and armed conflict in various North African countries, including Mali, spurring a nine-year-long military campaign by France in the country.
There’s more than a passing resemblance between US officials’ statements today, and the words of Jimmy Carter advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the architect of the policy of US support for the anti-Soviet mujahideen, who told an interviewer in the 1990s: “What is most important to the history of the world? . . . Some stirred up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” A few years later, these “stirred up Muslims” carried out the worst foreign attack on US soil, and thwarting them became the impetus for a destructive and impossibly wasteful “war on terror” that destabilized the Middle East and ramped up domestic authoritarianism.
Unfortunately, a political climate as militaristic as it is conformist means there is almost no public pressure on the Biden administration to do anything other than what it’s already doing: glutting the country with weapons while refusing to engage in negotiations to end the war. The president is about to announce another $800 million worth of military aid for the country, and a White House spokesperson has said that “we are always preparing the next package of security assistance to get into Ukraine.”
These announcements may be good news for weapons manufacturers, who are already rubbing their hands over the massive spending implied by current Western policy demands. But just like Afghanistan in the 1980s, these shipments are also an investment in the next armed conflict they spark, one whose full return won’t come for a while yet — and few are likely to claim credit when it does.