When Germany announced she would be sending 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 stinger missile-systems to Ukraine to aid her in defeating the Russians, it broke a long standing policy of the EU nation refusing to provide weapons to nations engaged in armed conflict. It might not seem such a big deal in the circumstances, after all, Germany was merely one of 15 countries pledging money and weapons to Ukraine – everything from fighter jets to night vision goggles.
However modern history shows quite clearly that there is almost never an open and shut case for weapons deliveries to conflict zones. As much as strategists and politicians would like to make it out to be a simple case of Russia=bad Ukraine=good, it pays instead to consider the 2nd Amendment advocate’s position of gun=neutral, criminals=bad. It also pays to consider what 19th century French economist Frederic Bastiat said about every economic action having two effects: one which is seen, and another which is not seen.
Funneling guns and money into warzones has long been part of the Pentagon playbook, and the results almost universally create a myriad of tragic problems varying in scope from personal tragedies to world-changing ones. Providing huge shipments of arms to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War allowed Saddam Hussein to invade and challenge the dangerous Islamic revolution: this is that which is seen. The hollow remainder of the chemical weapons which EU states and the U.S. built and sold years before was a focus in the investigation used to justify the 2003 invasion of that same country, a war which may have killed a million people over 20 years: this is that which is not seen; the unaccounted for, unimagined consequences of objects as dangerous and as long-lived as weaponry lying around in the hands of state militaries and other actors.
Furthermore, the United States’ involvement in Saddam’s chemical weapons program prohibited them from trying to stop it, which not only resulted in the agonizing death of many Iranians, but the sickness of 17 American bomb clearing specialists during the Iraq War in 2003. It also resulted in the subsequent cover-up of that sickness and the denial of medical care for the victims, in order to avoid drawing attention to the question of why those weapons were there. Coincidentally Germany helped build those chemical munitions, putting a pretty obvious time stamp on her "long standing policy".
Here we see that arming countries can create different kinds of moral injury, along with the obvious physical ones. One can only imagine the psychological trauma involved with getting an injury from mustard gas in service to one’s country, only to be told it never happened, and to be forced by the very government one enlisted to protect that he or she must live with that injury untreated, in order to avoid shame arising from war crimes committed by their own father’s generation.
Several more famous examples exist. Operation Timber Sycamore in Syria, where then-President Obama maintained his CIA was arming only "vetted moderate rebels" when in reality it was not only a myriad of un-vetted international jihadists of every description, including those who would go on to form the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate, but also those under Hayat Tarir al-Sham, the downstream evolution of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who hold the current Road Warrior-wasteland that is Idlib Province.
It would have seemed, certainly in the light and emotion of the Kremlin’s new war in Ukraine, as black and white an issue as a Zebra to send weapons (like stinger missiles) to the poor militias in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and occupation of their country during the 1980s. The words here need not over-illuminate the results of that multi-year, multi-billion dollar policy, rather they only require detailing that it dispersed armed men across the tribal areas resulting in who-knows-how-many individual robberies and murders, while provisioning the country nicely for the fighting of the Afghan Civil War, resulting the rise of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, and other belligerents in that conflict, and others to follow.
Too many loose ends
During wartime, many societal functions break down. In countries without robust institutional resilience, wartime makes it deeply challenging to keep track of individual citizens’ actions. The combination of general mobilization and mass arming of the populace with everything from pistols to anti-aircraft and tank weaponry will see the ownership of firearms, whether legally or not, massively rise in Ukraine.
This can and likely will lead to hundreds of small tragedies of armed robbery and violence, which proponents of the arming policy may say is worth it provided the arms help ensure there’s a state remaining at the end in which the tragedies can occur.
And of course there is a chance that diplomacy will prevail, albeit a chance which remains about the same whether or not large weapons donations are conducted, as talks are ongoing between the combatants to potentially end the war without the threat of societal breakdown.
But Ukraine, absent Russia or not, is now well-positioned for civil unrest and ethnic conflict as was seen in 2015. Elements of "Banderism" – a national form of Arianism, which frightens Moscow so, should be equally frightening to those in Donbas, as this war will certainly embolden the Banderites in the well-known Azov Battalion and other groups that revere the Nazi party.
In both cases, swaths of loosely-monitored firearms (the Czech Republic alone is sending 4,000 mortars as well as an arsenal of 30,000 pistols, 7,000 assault rifles, and 3,000 machine guns) are the perfect tools to stoke the flames of racial hatred which will no doubt be blazing over after this invasion’s conclusion, regardless of which country controls Kyiv. It was over the breakaway republics in Donbas that Russia launched their special military operation, and it will be upon them that the blame for the death and destruction of their homeland will be placed.
These conditions are dreadfully ideal for civil conflict which money and guns will exacerbate as it becomes impossible for even well-meaning nations like Germany and Belgium to control what happens to their armaments after they enter the country.
Andy Corbley is founder and editor of World at Large, an independent news outlet. He is an avid listener of Antiwar radio and of the Scott Horton Show.