A central irony of the controversy over President Trump’s alleged efforts to condition military aid to Ukraine on political favors is that Trump has presided over the shipment of more lethal weaponry to Ukraine than had his predecessor, President Barack Obama.
This was underlined by Thursday’s announcement that the State Department had approved the sale of almost $40 million worth of Javelin antitank missiles and launchers to Ukraine, which follows an earlier shipment of Javelins in early 2018.
“Even if there is some delay in the [Trump] administration for some reason, they’re still providing a greater package than what was being provided before,” said a U.S. official who has worked on Ukraine issues.
This is despite the fact that Trump is widely considered to be more sympathetic than Obama toward Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. “Early on, when they [Trump and Putin] kind of had that bromance, we were like, ‘Well, this could be really bad for the Ukrainians,’ and then ultimately it wasn’t,” said the U.S. official.
Obama’s decision not to supply Javelins to Ukraine followed “a vigorous and ongoing debate” within his administration on the issue, said Tony Blinken, who served as deputy national security adviser from 2013 to 2015 and deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017. “It was something we came back to repeatedly,” said Blinken in an interview on Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast, adding that he had argued in favor of sending the Javelins. “Some of us were advocates for providing those … defensive lethal weapons,” he said. “Others were concerned that it would lead to a slippery slope where it would just get us deeper and deeper involved.”
Blinken declined to name the Obama administration officials who argued against providing lethal aid to Ukraine, but the U.S. official who worked on Ukraine issues identified Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser from 2013 to 2017, as a principal opponent. “Susan Rice was afraid that if you provide this to the Ukrainians, then the Russians are going to step up and get aggressive,” the U.S. official said.
Rice did not immediately response to a request for comment.
Ultimately, Obama sided with Rice. “The president was concerned that it would simply lead to escalation that we couldn’t control,” Blinken said.
When Obama left office in January 2017, advocates for sending Javelins to Ukraine hoped the incoming Trump administration would look more favorably on the proposal. Their argument was that “providing things like Javelins won’t make the Russians get more aggressive, it’ll actually cause them to back down more,” said the U.S. official who worked on Ukraine issues.
That view found a sympathetic audience in the upper ranks of the Trump administration, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, according to the U.S. official. However, Trump reserved the final decision for himself. “When it came down to it — and it took longer than we would have liked — ultimately he’s the one that made the decision to give them those weapons systems,” the official said.
Trump made that decision in December 2017, including the missiles as part of a larger aid package. The official announcement did not specifically mention Javelins and was released just prior to Christmas. “We wanted to give them the aid, but we didn’t want it to be a big news story,” said the U.S. official who worked on Ukraine issues.
Experts are divided as to how important the Javelins have been to Ukraine, where the war in the eastern Donbass region has been in a stalemate since the implementation of a formal ceasefire in early 2015.
“Lethal arms have yet to be used, and they were never going to make a substantial difference in Ukraine’s ability to fight Russia,” Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Yahoo News in an email earlier this year. The Javelins “are locked up somewhere in Ukraine, rather than being on the frontline.”
This was a condition of the deal to give the Javelins to Ukraine in the first place, according to the U.S. official who worked on Ukraine issues, who said the Javelins were provided on the condition that Ukrainians not use them against Russian forces on the largely static frontlines in the Donbass region. Rather, the missiles are to be kept in reserve as “a deterrent” against any further Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory, the official said.
“The Russians know if they wanted to, they could take Ukraine militarily, but they know it’s going to cost them a lot more because of these Javelin weapons systems,” the official added.
The Ukrainians have lived up to their side of the deal and have kept the Javelins away from the Donbass, according to Phillip Karber, a former defense official who is president of the Potomac Foundation and frequently visits Ukraine. Nonetheless, “once the Russians heard the Javelins were coming in,” they withdrew their tanks several miles from the frontlines, he said.
In any case, the Javelin is more suitable for defensive purposes, according to retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who commanded U.S. Army Europe between November 2014 and December 2017. The Javelin is “the best man-portable antitank system in the world,” Hodges said. However, he added, “it’s not an ideal weapon if you decided to launch an attack somewhere.”
But while the original shipment of Javelins may serve as a deterrent to Russia, the fallout from the release of an official memo detailing a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is likely to weaken Ukraine, embolden Putin and restrict the United States diplomatically, according to several observers.
One of the casualties of the memo’s release was Kurt Volker, who resigned his position as U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Sept. 27. "The only ones who are happy with Volker's departure are Russia," said a senior European diplomat in Washington.
The memo’s suggestion that Trump would condition further shipments of military aid on Zelensky ordering an investigation into the involvement of Hunter Biden, son of former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, in a Ukrainian energy company will undercut the U.S. efforts in the region, according to Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. “Not supporting Ukrainian democracy and just asking them to do this personal favor, that undermines U.S.-Ukrainian relations," he said.
Even the perception that U.S. support for Ukraine is less than wholehearted will give the Putin regime hope, according to Hodges, the former U.S. Army Europe commander. “Anything that looks like you’re not as committed of course will be exploited at different levels by the Kremlin,” he said.
Meanwhile, the memo’s recounting of Zelensky’s apparent criticism of major European leaders will hurt his standing in European capitals, according to the senior European diplomat in Washington.
"People will not admit it,” the diplomat said, “but this hurts Zelensky in Europe.”
Sharon Weinberger contributed reporting to this article.
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