For a policy that’s purportedly a pillar of the decades-old international order, military aid to Ukraine is pretty new.
When Adam Schiff asked Bill Taylor, the first witness in the House’s public impeachment hearings, to explain to Americans why U.S. security assistance to Ukraine matters for their own security, America’s top diplomat in Kyiv went big. Really big.
“It affects the world that we live in, that our children will grow up in and our grandchildren,” Taylor declared. “Ukraine is on the front line” of a struggle to prevent Russia from trampling on the post–World War II order, which “actually kept the peace in Europe for nearly 70 years.”
We’ve heard this sentiment repeatedly during the inquiry, but is it true? The problem with the argument is that it is a simplistic portrayal of the support that the United States provides Ukraine, fueled in part by the logic of the impeachment inquiry: Democrats must prove that the president’s actions were so harmful to the republic that they warrant the extreme constitutional recourse of removing him from office. That encourages them to play up the connection between Donald Trump’s pressure tactics on Ukraine and the fallout for the nation’s security.
By suspending $400 million in U.S. military aid to pressure the Ukrainian government into announcing investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 U.S. election, they contend, the president pursued his own political interests at the expense not just of Ukraine’s interests but also those of the United States.
But for a policy that’s purportedly a pillar of the decades-old international order, military aid to Ukraine is pretty new. The U.S. government has provided more than $1.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since 2014, when Russia intervened militarily in eastern Ukraine and illegally annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea following an uprising that overthrew the country’s pro-Moscow president.
Barack Obama suggested that defending Ukraine against Russia wasn’t a core U.S. national-security concern—and that even if the United States did have interests in Ukraine, Russia had more, meaning that Moscow would always be willing to do more than Washington to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence. As Obama told The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, at the end of his presidency, “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”
That point of view has decidedly shifted. When the Trump administration inexplicably held up security assistance from mid-July to mid-September of 2019, a bipartisan uproar in Congress compelled the White House to reinstate it.
What’s attracted the most attention about the aid package is that Trump broke with Obama’s policy and in 2018 began sending lethal weaponry such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and launchers to the Ukrainian military, a matter he and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky discussed in their now-infamous July phone call. But a U.S. condition of these sales was that the Javelins couldn’t actually be used in the fight with Russia and had to be stored away from the battlefield, which means they’ve effectively had only a symbolic deterrent effect. (The head of U.S. European Command says Javelin systems warehoused in western Ukraine have given Ukrainian soldiers in the east of the country “a bounce in [their] step,” for what it’s worth, which in the case of Javelins can be hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop.)
The more meaningful components of the package are U.S. military training and equipment such as sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, counter-artillery radar systems, night-vision technology, and various forms of medical support. That $400-million figure we keep hearing about included items like these and refers to a tranche of $250 million managed by the Defense Department and another of just over $140 million managed by the State Department.
When the conflict with Russian forces and pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists first erupted, the Ukrainian military had only about 6,000 combat-ready troops, even though its declared military manpower was well over 100,000, Mariya Omelicheva, a professor at the Pentagon-funded National Defense University, told me. Soldiers received no training at the brigade or regimental level, lacked rifles and ammunition, and had to depend largely on “battalions of volunteers funded by oligarchs” to wage the war.
In the years since, she argues, U.S. security assistance has played a substantial role in producing a better trained, better equipped, better commanded Ukrainian military, signaling to the troops that the United States had their back.
Without U.S. military aid, the 300-mile-long front line in the eastern Donbass region “would have been moved further west into Ukraine, and Russia-backed rebels would have controlled more Ukrainian territory,” said Omelicheva, who last spring visited a U.S.-Ukrainian military-training center. “The casualties would have multiplied.”
The aid has also reduced fatalities on the Ukrainian side through the delivery of ambulances and other medical resources, along with radar systems capable of spotting and tracking incoming artillery and mortar rounds, Omelicheva told me. According to the Ukrainian government, military units using these systems have witnessed a 60 percent decline in casualty rates. At the outset of the conflict, about 70 percent of Ukrainian casualties were from rocket and artillery fire.
“It is also plausible that [in the absence of U.S. security assistance] a desperate Ukraine would have been forced into a peace deal favoring Russia’s interests”—by, for example, feeling compelled to grant the Donbass region independence, Omelicheva said.
The growth of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, which rose steadily from 2014 to 2016 and has remained at high levels ever since, has indeed coincided with the conflict in eastern Ukraine settling into a less deadly stalemate punctuated by spurts of violence, though correlation is not causation and this mainly has to do with the warring parties reaching a (still frequently violated) cease-fire in 2015. Conflict-related civilian deaths have decreased from 2,082 in 2014 to 19 so far in 2019.
In her testimony yesterday, Laura Cooper, a Defense Department official who oversees Ukraine and Russia policy, argued that withdrawing U.S. military support to Ukraine would only “embolden Russia” to act aggressively against others (presumably including European NATO members, to which the United States has defense-treaty obligations) and “validate” its “violation of international law” by seizing Ukrainian territory. When asked to elaborate on her testimony that the assistance “is vital to helping the Ukrainians be able to defend themselves,” she acknowledged that Ukrainian forces “have a long way to go” before being able to fend off Russian aggression on their own.
In his testimony, Taylor argued that U.S. security assistance has also strengthened Ukraine’s position in negotiations to end the conflict with Russia.
This view of American military aid as an unalloyed good, however, isn’t universally shared.
Benjamin Friedman, the policy director for the think tank Defense Priorities, which advocates for more military restraint in U.S. foreign policy, counters that the United States’ security assistance has failed to result in a peace deal for Ukraine, and that the aid risks prolonging the conflict, making Kyiv less willing to compromise with Moscow and turning Ukraine into a “perpetual protectorate of the United States or the NATO alliance.”
“I think that we’re actually undermining a diplomatic outcome that’s likely to last or likely to be acceptable to the Russians,” Friedman said.
“I would like to keep the issue of what is wise U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine separate from the issue of whether or not aid to Ukraine was corruptly withheld by the president,” Friedman added. “You can be against using military aid to get campaign help and against lethal military aid to Ukraine.”
Omelicheva, for her part, writes that the United States has not leveraged its security assistance to push for the kinds of defense reforms and modernization that would fashion the Ukrainian military into a more effective force, instead focusing on short-term training programs and equipment shipments that “are not enough to secure a retake of the Donbas[s] or repel possible future Russian advances.”
There’s also a debate within the U.S. government, one that stretches back to the post–Cold War period of the ’90s, about the extent to which what’s happening in Ukraine directly affects U.S. national security. As recently as 2017, Trump’s former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was asking why American taxpayers should care about Ukraine. As recently as a few months ago, according to congressional testimony by the Kyiv-based American diplomat David Holmes, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union was claiming that the president doesn’t “give a shit about Ukraine.”
Taylor also made the case that the Trump administration’s own national-security strategy states that great-power rivals such as China and Russia are seeking to revise the international system in ways that would undermine American interests. Of course, it’s no easy task to convince the American people that the president endangered them by halting the delivery of RPGs and night-vision goggles to a conflict 5,000 miles away in order to protect an informal U.S. partner and uphold the rules-based international order.
Even if you accept these arguments for why aiding Ukraine militarily is in America’s national-security interests, Trump held up the security assistance for such a brief period over the summer (55 days) that it would have been a blip on the battlefield. It’s impossible to prove, as Schiff attempted to, that the withholding of aid for a few months cost lives that wouldn’t have otherwise been lost. Cooper testified that there were no shortfalls of military equipment as a result of the pause. The delay of military assistance “did not have any influence on the situation in the eastern war zone,” one Ukrainian army sniper told The Daily Signal, a news site published by the Heritage Foundation.
Ironically, the impeachment inquiry, with all its talk about security assistance and Ukraine policy, may wind up distracting the U.S. government from what’s actually happening on the ground in Ukraine. In a couple of weeks, in fact, representatives from Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany will gather in Paris for peace talks on the conflict. If any American officials are thinking through the role the United States can play in this next stage of the diplomatic process, they’re not talking about it on Capitol Hill.