Should the West arm Ukraine against Russian-backed rebels? That's a question guaranteed to generate earnest debate among armchair foreign policy pundits. But it also found its way into the just-concluded 51st Munich Security Conference.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, Munich Security Conference, 8 February 2015

Traditionally a forum for tedious re-commitments to global security, this year's conference came alive with discussion over Western 'lethal defensive' aid to Ukraine. It also exposed yet again the divisions between the US and Europe about how to handle Vladimir Putin.

Led by Senator John McCain, the US case was that only military aid to Ukraine would change Russia's cost-benefit analysis. At a meeting of American delegates, the recent Franco-German attempt at a ceasefire was compared to another Munich, the infamous 1938 agreement between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. Yet Angela Merkel disagreed vehemently, arguing that only a political solution could work. She observed that there was no situation 'in which improvement in the equipment of the Ukrainian army so impresses Putin that he concedes militarily'.

Unfortunately, public debates about force — and the question of whether the West should help Ukraine fight for peace is a good example — are frequently superficial. This is because moral, if not outright ideological, justifications tend to predominate. For instance, Russia claims the moral high ground on behalf of human security for Ukrainian separatists, but is simultaneously a stalwart defender of state sovereignty against external (read: Western) 'interference'. But by the same token there is little real difference between the crusading moralism of some US officials on arming Ukraine and the long-held Wilsonian belief in peace through democracy.

But lumping choices into morally 'good' and 'bad' categories obscures why actors respond the way they do to conflict.

Each player in the current Ukrainian game has plenty at stake in seeing a certain outcome. These factors are almost never spoken of, since they reflect a raw self-interest that plays poorly in the public sphere. Yet they remain vitally important to understanding each side's position.

The German stance is easiest to unpack, but also the most vexing as a foreign policy problem. Old Cold War arrangements left Germany an economic powerhouse but a military minnow. It therefore wants the US to keep underwriting European security through NATO, mainly as a deterrent against major war. As the dominant economy in 'soft power Europe', Berlin has a sizeable interest in emphasising patient diplomacy. And for this to be credible, Merkel must also prove Germany's capacity to lead beyond the borders of the EU.

But since Russia supplies 40% of Germany's gas, Merkel can't afford to be too hawkish with Putin. She also has no interest in expanding either NATO or the EU to cover Ukraine. The cost of absorbing that corrupt and debt-ridden state would be astronomical, and German taxpayers would have to foot much of the bill. An expanded NATO on Russia's borders would also recreate a bipolar European security order. Given the US 'pivot' to Asia, Berlin would have to adopt a more central role in an adversarial security environment.

Hence, Germany is effectively pinched between alliance loyalty and geopolitical reality.

It has no alternatives to Russian energy, the interruption of which would hit industrial production and domestic consumers. Understandably, Merkel is unwilling to trade internal political capital for transatlantic solidarity, especially when arming Ukraine might escalate matters. The most appropriate German response is therefore to make the moral case that weapons won't win the peace. 

The 'arm Ukraine' position articulated in the US is also underpinned by geopolitical and domestic realities. America is geographically distant from European Russia and has no reliance on Gazprom. It is also poised to re-enter the global energy trade in a big way; its fracking boom will allow it to offer an alternative to Russian gas and oil once it has built the infrastructure to deliver it. It has no real trading relationship with Russia to speak of, so it is insulated from economic reprisals from Moscow. 

The main justification for arming Kiev is that it would demonstrate transatlantic resolve: the next best thing to Ukrainian NATO membership.

Even supporters of such a move acknowledge that is unlikely to help matters on the ground much since Ukraine largely uses Russian military kit. An influx of US weapons systems will sit idle unless the Ukrainian armed forces receive lengthy training to use them properly. Likewise, it is unclear whether US military aid can be made interoperable with the hardware Ukraine has deployed in the Donbas theatre. But the US remains worried that its response to Putin has been weak, and that he has exploited transatlantic differences. The challenge for US strategic planners, then, is how to ensure that EU temporising does not embolden Russia further,thus giving Putin more leverage in future.

So, stripped of moralising about right and wrong, both the cases for and against arming Ukraine are persuasive.

McCain is correct to claim that anything short of a Western military dimension in Ukraine is unlikely to make Putin blink. As one participant at Munich put it, 'diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.' Yet Merkel is right too, because Germany has far more to lose than the US. Moscow is signaling all the key EU players — France, Germany and the UK — that giving in to any US demand for Ukraine to receive military supplies will have damaging consequences. And arming Ukraine may not be enough: what if Putin simply continues to aid the rebels, confident that any further escalation by the West will breach the EU's own 'red line'? 

Judging by the performance of its delegation at Munich, Russia could not care less either way.

One Russian official flatly denied the presence of Russian military hardware or Russian troops in Ukraine. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov drew bemused laughter during an unusual history lesson about how the USSR had opposed splitting Germany in two. He also castigated Kiev's 'nationalistic violence', and the West for backing it. For one veteran commentator, Lavrov's speech 'reflected the alternate universe in which the Russian spaceship has docked almost a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union'. 

As the Russian attitude demonstrates, either arming or not arming Kiev is unlikely to make much difference. First, the moment has long since passed. Second, the fact that it has taken the West over a year to seriously discuss the proposition is already enough of a signal to Moscow. Third, nothing short of all-out war will dislodge Russia from occupying Crimea, and a massive offensive would be necessary to silence separatists in Eastern Ukraine.

The absence of any real options short of confrontation or capitulation means Russia will probably get its way.

Deepened sanctions may be agreed on, but if oil prices tick up as predicted, Moscow will be better able to ride them out. For NATO members, the silver lining is that Putin merely wants Ukraine as a weakened buffer state, and has few ambitions to Russia's west. He is unlikely to take on any Baltic country because he is keen to avoid direct confrontation with NATO. Unfortunately, given the depth of disagreement that has emerged between the US and Europe on Ukraine, that is not very comforting.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Munich Security Conference 2015.