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Opinion Editorial

A U.S.-Russia proxy war in Ukraine would be an unwelcome echo of the Cold War

U.S. policy options: Help Ukraine, yes; arm Ukraine, no

International outrage over the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane over Ukraine on July 17 does not appear to have affected either the actions of pro-Russia forces in that country or the material support Russia is offering the rebels. On Wednesday, the separatists apparently shot down two Ukrainian warplanes flying near the border with Russia. On Thursday, the U.S. accused Russia of firing artillery from its territory into Ukraine.

If Russia continues to abet the Ukrainian armed resistance, it must pay a price, as even European nations previously reluctant to impose significant sanctions are beginning to realize. This week the Europeans moved toward expanding sanctions directed at Russian officials and organizations linked to the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, and they are considering following the lead of the U.S. and imposing sanctions against sectors of the Russian economy, including defense and energy.

But some American politicians and policymakers would go beyond economic and diplomatic efforts and provide the Ukrainian government with military support. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has implored the Obama administration "to give the Ukrainians weapons with which to defend themselves." That would be a mistake.

It's not clear that the Obama administration is seriously considering McCain's advice. The U.S. has provided food, body armor and uniforms to Ukraine and has promised to deliver medical supplies and night-vision goggles as well. This week the Washington Times quoted a Pentagon spokesman as saying that the U.S. also planned "to support the Ukrainian military through subject-matter expert teams and long-term advisors."

If by "advisors" the administration means computer experts and payroll managers, that's one thing. But deploying "advisors" who are military strategists or uniformed soldiers would be reckless and provocative. So would providing Ukraine with lethal weapons.

A proxy war between the United States and Russia would be dangerous even if it didn't lead to a direct military confrontation between the two nuclear powers. It also would undermine President Obama's insistence that the U.S., while it supports Ukraine's sovereignty and independence, doesn't regard it as part of a Cold War chess game with Russia.

Finally, although it obviously continues to encounter resistance, Ukraine is gradually gaining military control of rebel-held areas on its own. Russia could help end the fighting if it stopped its interference and incitement. As long as it refuses to do so, the U.S. and its allies should keep up the pressure — but stay off the battlefield.

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Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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