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Giving Ukraine heavy weapons does not mean NATO is at war with Russia – The Economist - 17.04.22

As with the Soviets in Vietnam, providing arms is not the same as fighting.

A BILLION EUROS ($1.1bn) goes fast when you are fighting a war. But Germany’s announcement on April 15th that it would give around that sum in additional military aid to Ukraine may at least soften criticism of its failure to send tanks. It is part of a recent wave of pledges to provide Ukraine with heavy weapons.

Two days earlier America promised $800m in new aid, including armoured personnel carriers and helicopters. Britain is sending armoured patrol vehicles and anti-ship missiles, while the Czech Republic has delivered mobile rocket-launchers and T-72 tanks from its old Soviet stockpiles. Slovakia, which has already sent Ukraine an S-300 anti-aircraft system, has said it might also provide MiG-29 fighter jets (pictured), a Soviet model that Ukrainian pilots know how to fly.

In early March, America scotched a similar offer of MiG-29s from Poland, for fear it might invite reprisals from Russia, and thus drag NATO into the war. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, was more explicit still, suggesting that donations of heavy weapons might prompt Russia to label NATO a “co-belligerent”: a party to the conflict, and thus a legitimate target under the laws of war. Now, America says it has no objection to Slovakia’s offer. Early in the conflict Ukraine’s friends mainly stuck to giving it small arms and portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

As it has grown clear that the war will be a long one, they have become willing to supply it with complex systems that require months of training. Russian war crimes have also helped convince them to give Ukraine the heavier gear it needs to recapture occupied territory, and to help it shift from old Soviet kit to NATO-standard weaponry which could be maintained and armed more easily.

Yet the shift to heavier weapons provokes anxiety in some quarters, especially in Germany, which has suspended an offer of Marder infantry fighting vehicles, after its defence ministry said it had too few to give any away. Sahra Wagenknecht, an MP from the Left party, said sending Marders would make Germany a Kriegsteilnehmer (“participant in the war”).

Even Robert Habeck, the relatively hawkish climate minister, says Germany has “a responsibility not to become a target of attack ourselves”. All this seems to stem from a fear that delivering heavy weapons heightens the likelihood of a direct conflict between Russia and NATO.

From a historical perspective such worries seem misplaced. Take the offer of MiG-29s. During the war in Vietnam, dozens of American planes were shot down by North Vietnamese fighter jets furnished by the Soviet Union. In addition to aircraft, North Vietnam received vast numbers of tanks, missiles and artillery pieces from its Soviet and Chinese patrons, and used them to kill thousands of American soldiers. Both sides worried that this proxy war could escalate into a direct conflict between nuclear powers. Yet it never did.

The war in Ukraine presents a similar situation, with the roles reversed. This time it is Russia that is fighting a smaller state whose forces are being equipped and trained by America and its allies in NATO. Russia has warned NATO that it may strike countries that supply or aid Ukrainian forces, and has even hinted it might use nuclear weapons.

From the perspective of international law, experts say, Russia’s position is unjustified. “Supplying weapons, including heavy weapons, would not in and of itself make a country a party to an armed conflict. That would require more direct involvement in military operations,” says Adil Haque, a professor at Rutgers Law School and the author of “Law and Morality at War”.

This has not always been the case. International law, as it developed in Europe beginning in the 17th century, required countries that wanted to stay out of others’ wars to observe strict neutrality. That meant they had to trade equally with both sides of a conflict, as Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro, professors at Yale Law School, explained in a recent article.

Supplying arms to one side only, or favouring its trade, could make their ships fair game for attack by the other. But this law of neutrality was designed for a world where war was an accepted tool of statecraft. That changed with the adoption of the Kellogg-Briand Pact in 1928, which made it illegal to attack another country unprovoked—a principle later enshrined in the UN’s charter.

The charter recognises that states have a right to self-defence, and that other countries can join in “collective self-defence” to help them. States are allowed to give military support to victims of aggression, or to impose sanctions on the aggressor, without affecting their own neutral status. Indeed, when the UN Security Council condemns an act of aggression, that resolution is legally binding on all member states.

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Giving Ukraine heavy weapons does not mean NATO is at war with Russia -The Economist - 17
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MiG-29 fighter jets (pictured) Picture credit: Loskilleros |

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