The Ethics of Weapons Transfers: Ukraine and the Fate of MH-17

| July 2014
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The tragic destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in the skies over Eastern Ukraine has once again raised the question about the degree of responsibility the provider of weapons systems has for how they are used. Laying aside, for the moment, the claim made by separatists fighting in Eastern Ukraine that they obtained the sophisticated surface-to-air missile system by capturing Ukrainian government equipment, let us instead concentrate on what all the evidence presented so far indicates: that the Buk medium-range self-propelled rockets were supplied to the separatist rebels from Russian sources, and that Russian military experts assisted in the deployment and utilization of the system.

There are several ethical questions that have to be addressed. The first is whether the separatists have a valid claim to be using military force. They, of course, claim that a legitimately-elected president was overthrown in a coup and that the subsequent interim government was illegitimate and had no claim to their loyalty. The response is that elections for a new president were held in which candidates who would have represented the interests and views of the separatists could have been represented and that the new government has offered political dialogue and a plan for the further decentralization of power to the regions.

The separatists claim that their position was legitimized by a pair of referenda held in the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk which ratified the claim to setting up independent administrations, but these referenda were not viewed as legitimate by most countries around the world or seen as representative. The Ukrainian government also refuses to enter into talks directly with the separatists. The government has also continued with its efforts to retake control of the regions by force.

It is clear that the separatists enjoy some support from the local population, but not as high as they claim or that the referenda purported to indicate. It makes it very difficult, however, to assess whether they have standing to speak on behalf of the people. Given that elections have been held, and the possibility of a political process for resolving disputes without resorting to violence, it is not clear that the ethical criteria for armed rebellion–that all other measures have been exhausted, and that there is no possibility for redress by other means–has been achieved.

Do other states have the right to offer arms to the separatists? In a strict Westphalian sense, no; each sovereign state has every right to take whatever means necessary to establish its writ over its territory and to retain sole possession of the right and means of violence. If, however, a separatist region has acquired de facto control over a defined territory, and appears as if it can in fact establish itself as a legitimate governing authority, then facilitating its separation–and giving it the means to defend itself–might be seen as ethical if this opened the way to peace talks. The idea of using weapons to create strategic balances to force a recalcitrant government to the negotiating table was part of the strategy used in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and, for a time, was the justification for considering providing arms to the Syrian opposition.

The Western position, of course, is that the separatists have no standing to be offering armed resistance and that Russia has no right to offer weapons to groups engaged in what amounts to rebellion against the Ukrainian state. (Russians, in turn, make the same arguments about the Syrian opposition.)

Once arms are transferred, however, does the originating state have the ethical responsibility to make sure they are used properly and in an ethical fashion, or does all obligation now fall upon those who have received the weapons? In the modern era, there is a sense that the provider does have some obligations to discharge; to vet those who are receiving weapons, to ensure they are trained in their use; and that they understand the proper rules of engagement. Part of the reason Israel was held responsible for the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila, even though no Israeli personnel took part or even ordered the action, was because Israel had been providing arms and aid to the Falange militia. The U.S. has imposed conditions, at times, on weapons that it has supplied to others–although not always following up with penalties if weapons were used in a fashion the United States deemed to be improper.

Russia, therefore, has several responses it can make in response to the downing of MH-17, but each shows a different ethical lapse. One is to maintain that weapons were transferred without any real controls, and that Russia no longer could influence or direct those who were receiving weapons shipments. The other is that Russia has been exercising control over those who are receiving the weapons–and thus would bear some responsibility for how they are being used. No one is suggesting that the separatists deliberately shot down MH-17–all indications are that it was accidental–but in that case, full compliance with the investigation is a minimum requirement.

The problem, of course, is that the modern iterations of “shadow warfare” do not lend themselves well to ethical considerations. When “plausible deniability” is the rule of the game, then responsibility falls by the wayside.


[As with all blog postings, this post reflects my personal opinions only and does not reflect the position of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Government.]

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Category: Blog, The Ethics of War and Peace

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  1. David Speedie says:


    This is a most thoughtful and sober piece, unlike some of the febrile stuff on the airwaves. A few points, if I may:

    1. Kiev has offered “political dialogue…plan for decentralization.”
    The folks of east Ukraine may look askance at this velvet glove, given the iron fist of military action form the Poroshenko election on, and maybe my Scottish roots make me skeptical these days about “promises” for genuine devolution of authority.

    2. A candidate representing eastern interests could have run in the election in May: well, technically, of course, but the unconstitutional removal of Yanukovich [yes, he was a poor presidential specimen but also yes, it was illegitimate] pretty much decimated the Party of Regions and in the circumstances it would have been nigh impossible for a viable candidate to “emerge” [as old British Tory leaders used to do].

    3. Separatist support is/was “not as high as [leaders] claim”: every poll I’ve seen showed 60%+ in favor of robust decentralization AND against union with Russia. I come back to a slogan I read about in the early days post-Maidan: “We want to be with Russia, not part of Russia.”

    4. On your central, ethical question about provision of arms to nasty sub-state actors. Sad to say, the moral high ground is shaky underfoot, given our track record of arms supplies–for example to some Latin American actors in the past. Sad also to reflect on the Iranian Air 655 episode in 1988, comparable both in terms of lives lost, civilian innocents, and refusal to accept responsibility [even though we ended up making financial reparations!]

  2. JC says:

    Very interesting to see the commentary suggesting that President Obama sees the disaster in Ukraine as validating his decision not to send sophisticated weapons to Syria’s opposition groups, for precisely this reason that control over the weapons would be lost …