There’s a large gap between what the United States has promised in non-lethal military aid to Ukraine’s armed forces and national guard and what it has actually delivered. As the U.S. promises to consider sending lethal aid to Ukraine, those delays and shortfalls are not only feeding frustration and disappointment, but also undermining the credibility of these new pledges.
Secretary of State John Kerry met with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko Thursday and pledged the U.S. would stand by his government as it battles an increasingly aggressive separatist movement, heavily supported and armed by the Russian government. But according to the Obama administration’s own accounting to Congress, revealed in a document distributed on Capitol Hill in mid-December that I obtained, only half of the $118 million of non-lethal assistance pledged to Ukraine has so far been delivered.
“We keep making promises that aren’t fulfilled. We don’t think the administration’s promises are being kept,” Sen. Rob Portman, who together with Sen. Dick Durbin leads a new grouping of senators calling for increased military assistance to Ukraine, told me in an interview. “The administration seems to want to stand by while the violence escalates and more people are killed.”
According to the document, a range of items the U.S. has said it will send to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and State Border Guard Service have yet to be delivered. Among them are water purification systems, medical supplies, binoculars, sleeping bags, tents, and cold weather gear. The border guard is missing promised SUVs, armored trucks, vans, spare tires, and much more.
Portman said that Ukraine has not received any of more than 100 promised Humvees, and that the administration pledged to give Ukraine armored ambulances but never came through. Senate staff members told me that many in the State Department and Defense Department are frustrated with the White House, which they argue hasn’t shown urgency in getting the gear to Ukraine.
Moreover, the administration has sent equipment that, even within the defensive restrictions it has set, is of limited use to the Ukrainians. Instead of giving Ukraine anti-battery radar, for instance, which is capable against longer-range threats, the U.S. has given Ukraine less-effective anti-mortar radar systems. Also, the U.S. gave Ukraine 150 night-vision devices in September, but declined to provide night-vision gun scopes that could be used in battle.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed to me that only half the promised assistance has arrived but maintained that the administration remains committed to boosting Ukraine’s security capabilities as quickly as it can.
“The United States has not only committed to providing a range of non-lethal and economic assistance to Ukraine, we are using every lever possible to ensure assistance that has been approved is delivered efficiently and in a timely manner,” she said.
The problems with the process of moving non-lethal aid are not new. Last April, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Ukraine weapons expert Phillip Karber issued a report that called on the Obama administration to appoint a high-level official to oversee non-lethal aid, to fix the process in response to the urgency of the emergency:
“Delivery of U.S. non-lethal military aid is harmed by a bureaucracy that is not operating with a sense of urgency or implementing leadership. It must be replaced with an attitude that puts a priority on helping Ukraine ahead of a narrow preoccupation with administrative procedure and institutional budgets.”
Karber told me in an interview that the administration has subsequently not made any progress in fixing that system, and that Ukrainian officials have told him they are beginning to doubt the administration’s overall commitment to the effort.
“Obama short-sheeted Poroshenko. He promises them one thing and delivers then something else,” he said. “This disconnect, it undermines the basis of American credibility. The cynicism in Eastern Europe about American credibility is palpable. It is putting to a lie the argument that they actually care. They make these statements and then it takes months or it doesn’t happen.”
Over the last few months, Russia has drastically stepped up its provision of heavy weaponry to the Ukrainian separatists, and in recent weeks the fighting has intensified. As a result, the Obama administration is now re-evaluating its previous decision not to take aid to Ukraine to the next level by directly providing lethal assistance, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, small arms, and ammunition.
“We cannot close our eyes to tanks crossing the border from Russia and coming into Ukraine, we can’t close our eyes to Russian fighters in unmarked uniforms crossing the border and leading individual companies of so-called separatists into battle,” Kerry said in Kiev Thursday.
New data compiled by Karber claim that since October Russia has moved into Ukraine more than 400 armored fighting vehicles, 250 tanks, 100 “Grad” multiple launch rocket systems, 75 artillery batteries, and more.
Frustration with the lack of lethal military assistance to Ukraine on Capitol Hill is bipartisan. In December, Obama signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which authorizes defensive lethal aid and passed Congress unanimously. But in a statement, the White House said the president’s signing of the bill did not signal an actual change in policy.
“I think we need to give the Ukrainians the resources they need to protect themselves, particularly with regard to border security. And that does require giving them lethal aid,” Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin told me.
The group of 15 senators led by Portman and Durbin wrote to Obama on Tuesday calling on him to use his authority to provide defensive lethal aid to Ukraine, arguing that increasing the pressure on Putin is the only way to convince him to back down from his current escalation in Eastern Ukraine.
“Despite the welcome imposition of U.S. and EU sanctions and mounting international isolation, Russian President Putin appears willing to gamble his country’s economy and world standing to further his blatant military invasion of another nation,” the senators wrote. “That he is willing to undertake such a selfish pursuit to protect his kleptocracy and at the cost of the Russian people’s freedoms, aspirations, and talents is only the more tragic. Such a dangerous international bully will only stand down when faced with credible resistance.”
Obama acknowledged in an interview with CNN last week that even as Western-imposed sanctions have hurt Russia’s economy, they have not deterred Putin from aggressively interfering in Ukraine.
Inside the White House, some administration officials believe that lethal assistance to Ukraine will not only fail to deter Putin, but also push him to escalate the conflict further, adding to the human tragedy and dragging the U.S. into a hot war that European countries want no part of. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has publicly stated Germany will not arm the Ukrainian military.
Kerry has been working behind the scenes to cut a deal in which Russia would cease its aggression in Ukraine in exchange for limited sanctions relief and an agreement to table the issue of Crimea. The Russians have repeatedly rejected those terms.
Some experts agree with the administration that escalation through the form of U.S. lethal assistance to Ukraine is too risky, especially because Ukraine will always be more important to Russia than to America, and there’s no limit on what Putin will do to protect Russian interests there.
“If the Russians want to crush the entire Ukrainian military and take the entire country, they could do it. No amount of military assistance to Ukraine will change that fact. All it will do is kill more Russians as they kill more Ukrainians,” said Sam Charap, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Putin is trying to turn this into a battle in the Russian mind between Russia and America. And military assistance helps them with that.”
Poroshenko’s most memorable line when he addressed Congress last September was, “One cannot win the war with blankets.” What the Obama administration can’t say publicly is that the U.S. has not yet made the decision to support Ukraine enough so that it can “win,” whatever that means.
But it is the growing gap between U.S. rhetoric and its actual policy, measured not least by its failure to fulfill its earlier pledges, that is leaving Ukrainians feeling bewildered and abandoned.
The administration must decide whether to double down or strike a compromise in Ukraine.
Then, it must forthrightly share that decision with the rest of us.
Josh Rogin is a Bloomberg View columnist.