WASHINGTON, March 24, 2014 — According to a report from the New York Times, the government of Ukraine has ordered any of its citizens in possession of “illegal guns” to turn them in to the authorities. This move is being heralded by the European Union, which has made this step a provision of membership. Kiev believes that disarming Ukrainians will go a long way to end the escalating destabilization and the ever present threat of violence that has risen with the formation of “self-defense groups.” Others see this as a superficial power grab, and meddling politics on behalf of Europe.
It is dangerous at this point to demand that Ukrainians disarm. It is dangerous for a number of reasons. First, the grip of the new government on the country is tenuous. Crimea has already been lost, with Ukrainian troops currently pulling out of their bases there in the wake of Russia’s decision to annex the peninsula.
Kiev is not up to the task of both courting the EU and the West, while fending off the Russian wolf prowling at their door. The Ukrainian government cannot afford to alienate themselves from the boots-in-the-square civilians who put them in power. Calling for disarmament has the potential of only further destabilizing the region. Second, it would be difficult to believe after weeks of taking machine gun fire during their protests that Ukrainians have any desire to be weaker than the government again.
Indeed, they were disarmed years ago, when President Obama urged and assisted Ukraine in collecting some 400,000 small arms from the country in an effort to lead them away from conflict. These people faced the machine guns and riot police of Viktor Yanukovych and won. They overthrew him, they believe they gained their freedom, and they armed themselves to make sure that they would not be taken advantage of again. It was the will and courage of the Ukrainian people that won the new Ukrainian government their seats, and it was the will and courage of the Ukrainian people that they are in a position to bargain with the E.U. Neither the Ukrainian government nor the E.U. has the right to demand that those same people disarm.
Third is Russia. Russia has positioned over 150,000 troops around the Ukrainian border. They have taken Crimea, and they have moved on infrastructure positions and made threats against Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has a combined military strength of one hundred fifty thousand. Some of those may have ties to Russia and ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, which raises questions about their reliability. Russia has another 600,000 troops stationed around Asia and Europe. If the situation escalates, Ukraine will need help. They have to look to their own people. There are millions of Ukrainian men and women of service age, many of whom participated in the protests in Kiev. An unarmed populace in a war against Russia would be devastating not only to the new government in Kiev, but to the people of Ukraine. They would once again be forced to confront machine guns and riot police without firearms, but this time against a foreign invader.
Russia cannot afford to fight Ukraine in a guerrilla war.
However they can most certainly afford to fight them on conventional, “19th century” terms. If Ukraine and Russia weigh in to this match with their navies, air forces, and massed artillery, Russia will win, hands down. If Russia is met by both Ukraine’s army and by millions of armed partisans supported Kiev, the outcome will be entirely different. Russian mothers and wives will be forced to watch their children and husbands come home torn and destroyed by a conflict that is blatantly imperialist and wrong.
Such a conflict would not last for days, or months, but years.
A look at Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are all one needs to learn of the effectiveness of an insurgency or a well-funded guerrilla program. Ukrainian partisans fought against Soviet power after World War 2, well into the 1950s. Russia is looking to project strength to achieve an easy victory, and disarming the people will severely handicap Ukraine’s ability to counter that projection. Ukraine should not be disarming its people. Entry into the EU is important, and Kiev needs to be on good terms with the West, but focusing on that right now is like arguing over the wallpaper while the house burns around them.
The E.U. and the West need to understand that Ukraine is not just another quaint little country petitioning for entry into the club. Kiev should be arming and training Ukrainians, not disarming them. They should be holding their hands up high in defiance to Moscow, they should be preparing to resist the next step in a Russian invasion. Russia is training and arming pro-Russian and ethnic-Russian militias in Crimea. Russian soldiers are holding clinics on how to fire an AK-47, and Crimeans are showing up to learn and to fight. Kiev cannot afford to alienate and endanger Ukrainians by disarming.
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If Ukrainians are disarmed, Russia will roll over them and take Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government needs to arm the people so that the first Russian column to enter Ukraine won’t be greeted by apprehensive, unarmed citizens anxious to see the invaders off, but by thousands of armed citizens standings strong beside their government ready to protect their lands. Ukrainians fought for freedom; it would be wrong and an injustice to take from them the very instruments which could preserve it.