A day after Tuesday's announcement of an arms deal between Ukraine and the United Arab Emirates, the dust is beginning to settle and the details are starting to become clear. Much attention has been given to the potential for U.S. involvement in this deal and the possibility that the agreement is a way to indirectly transfer U.S. weapons Ukraine, a move that would cross a red line for Russia. However, UAE weapons cooperation with Ukraine is not likely to be that incendiary. For now, the deal serves the political purpose of signaling to Moscow that there are consequences for its actions — not only in Ukraine, but also in Iran and the rest of the world.
Stratfor sources have indicated that UAE military supplies to Ukraine are likely restricted to lower-profile items such as armored vehicles rather than "game-changing" technology. Using the United Arab Emirates simply as a conduit for U.S.-produced arms makes little sense because of the permission required from Washington to transfer critical U.S.-produced systems to a third party. Such a move would not give the United States any more political cover than a direct delivery to Ukraine would.
Defense deals between Abu Dhabi and Kiev are not new. Even during the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates delivered armored vehicles to the Ukrainian military that have been used in active operations. The United Arab Emirates has developed a modest defense industry, and securing export deals for these armored vehicles is a normal practice.
But the timing of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's claim that the countries signed a contract worth tens of millions of dollars on Tuesday is critical. In recent weeks, the United States has issued a deluge of statements about retaining the option to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, and Russia has responded with a deluge of warnings. Abu Dhabi is not seeking to antagonize Moscow, but right now, defense-related cooperation with Ukraine at any level inadvertently affects relations with Russia. Poroshenko's invitation to the IDEX 2015 defense industry convention in the United Arab Emirates is certain to have caught Russia's eye. The invitation follows a recent visit to Iran by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that put the delivery of Russian air defense systems to Iran back on the table. The delivery of the S-300 air defense system has been a source of diplomatic controversy for some time and would exacerbate Abu Dhabi's concerns about Iran's military capabilities and nuclear program. In this context, displaying some degree of defense cooperation with Ukraine would serve as a reminder to Moscow that the United Arab Emirates can deliver weapon systems to places sensitive to Russian interests.
However, any weapon in and of itself will not reverse Ukraine's fortunes in the war. A weapon system has a capability, but that capability can only be used for a certain set of specific tasks on any given battlefield, whether they be offensive or defensive — a distinction the Russians will not make about any weapons sold or transferred to Ukraine. A weapon can have a massive impact on the battlefield if its capabilities neutralize or destroy the enemy's strength or exploit a weakness, if it is present in enough numbers and if the troops wielding it have been properly trained. All of this requires money — something the Ukrainians do not have much of, leaving them largely dependent on third-party largesse and a geopolitical context that rises above just fighting separatists in eastern Ukraine.
This explains the level of noise surrounding any potential weapons transfers to Ukraine. The separatists, with heavy Russian support, have had much success on the battlefield against a fairly weak Ukrainian military, predominantly by using armor and artillery. But the United States and its allies possess some weapons systems that could impose painful costs if they are fielded in large enough numbers and the Ukrainian military is trained in their use. The Javelin anti-tank guided missile is an oft-cited example of such a system. It may not win the war, but it could result in a higher attrition rate for Russian tanks, and that is why Russia has warned it would respond if significant weapons deliveries occur.
There is a context and timing to all of this noise as well. It grew louder when the separatists and their Russian backers looked like they could seriously expand their territorial holdings in eastern Ukraine. The threat of weapons deliveries from the United States was meant to deter such thinking. In other words, the United States has been telling Russia that the conflict in eastern Ukraine will get much more painful if Moscow continues using the combat situation as leverage in negotiations with Kiev. This strategy seems to have worked, to a point; a cease-fire has been implemented, albeit slowly and painfully.
A deterrent like the threat of arms deliveries does not go away. The combination of U.S. threats and the secretive UAE deal with Ukraine has opened up all levels of speculation. This deal seems to be more about low-level transfers and subtle messaging for now, but many options remain open as the conflict continues. All sides are likely to continue discussing and speculating about negotiations as well as any future arms deals with Ukraine as long as the status of eastern Ukraine remains in doubt.