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Did Withholding Military Aid To Ukraine Really Hurt Their Ability To Fight Russia? Evidence Suggests Not

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As the impeachment battle rages on in Washington D.C., Congressional Democrats argue that President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold lethal aid to Ukraine undermined the Eastern European country’s struggle for survival. 

“Ukrainians are dying every day in their war with Russia. And so the withholding of military assistance to get these investigations … was wrong for the president to request, the idea of withholding that military aid to get these political investigations, should be anathema to — repugnant to every American, because it means the sacrifice, not just Ukrainian national security, but American national security, for the interests of the president personally and politically,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) during a hearing on November 19th. (RELATED: Impeachment Star Adam Schiff Won First Congressional Race By Campaigning Against Impeachment)

This accusation has also featured prominently in the headlines of mainstream media outlets. “People died while Trump played games with Ukraine’s military aid,” claimed The Washington Post. “Trump froze military aid — as Ukrainian soldiers perished in battle,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “U.S. military aid still a matter of survival in Ukraine amid impeachment battle,” insisted CBS News. 

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) pauses while speaking to reporters with House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) and other House committee chairs during a news conference to announce articles of impeachment against U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC2FSD997EAS

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) pauses while speaking to reporters with House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) and other House committee chairs during a news conference to announce articles of impeachment against U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst – RC2FSD997EAS

But was Trump’s decision to delay lethal aid for a couple months really a question of life and death for the Eastern European country? A closer look at U.S. lethal aid to Ukraine calls this claim into question.  

In fact, Ukrainian forces have never actually used U.S. Javelin anti-tank missiles, the centerpiece of the U.S. lethal aid package, in combat. When the Trump administration decided to sell Javelins to Ukraine in December 2017, it did so under one clear condition: the Ukrainian government must store the missiles in the western part of the country hundreds of miles away from the frontline. (RELATED: Ukraine’s Fired Top Prosecutor Saw No Evidence Of Wrongdoing, Urged Giuliani To Launch US Investigation)

U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal that the purpose of this restriction was “to ensure that Ukraine doesn’t use [U.S. Javelins] for an offensive push and they aren’t lost to the enemy if the fighting shifts.” The officials noted that pro-Russian separatists had previously captured U.S. supplied radar systems after defeating Ukrainian government forces at the Battle of Debaltseve in 2015. 

Erin Schaff/Pool via REUTERS - RC2EFD9U9UCT

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), joined by House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes (R-CA), gives closing remarks during a House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry hearing with Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, and David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on November 20, 2019. Erin Schaff/Pool via REUTERS – RC2EFD9U9UCT

The war in eastern Ukraine has transformed the former Soviet republic into a major black market for illegal arms, the bulk of which came from the Ukrainian military and pro-government volunteer battalions. According to Ukrainian authorities, the problem is only getting worse as the war drags on. Ukraine’s National Police admitted in October 2018 that sales of illegal weapons had doubled over the preceding year. 

While most of these Ukrainian black market arms end up destined for the Middle East, including Iran, some of them have found their way to Russia. In September, Belarusian authorities uncovered and shut down a smuggling channel that transferred weapons from Ukraine to Russia through Belarus, a mutual neighbor of both countries. (RELATED: Biden Faces Renewed Scrutiny Over Son’s Relationship To Ukrainian Gas Company)

Some opponents of the Trump administration have echoed its concerns about the possibility of U.S. lethal aid falling into separatist hands. Former CIA director John Brennan, a vocal Trump critic, told NBC News last month that the Obama administration did not provide Javelin missiles to Ukraine “because of a fear that the Russians would get access to Javelin’s sensitive technology.” 

“The Russians had deep penetrations of Ukrainian intelligence, security, and military forces in the aftermath of that country’s 2014 revolution that overthrew a pro-Russian government and it took time to rid those forces of Russian moles, agents, and spies,” he said. 

Brennan, however, added that he now supports providing Ukraine with Javelin missiles. 

Former CIA director John Brennan speaks during a forum on election security titled, “2020 Vision: Intelligence and the U.S. Presidential Election” at the National Press Club in Washington, U.S., October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RC152485F630

Former CIA director John Brennan speaks during a forum on election security titled, “2020 Vision: Intelligence and the U.S. Presidential Election” at the National Press Club in Washington, U.S., October 30, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts – RC152485F630

Even without the Trump’s administration’s stipulation about keeping Javelins stored in western Ukraine, it is unlikely that Kyiv would have an opportunity to use them in combat. The last tank battle in eastern Ukraine occured in 2015. Since then, the conflict there has transformed into a frozen trench war, in which both sides occasionally engage in gunfire but don’t launch any major offensives. 

Why then did the Trump administration supply Javelins to Ukraine if it did not want to use them on the battlefield and the Kyiv itself had limited military use for anti-tank weapons? Part of the reason is political. In December 2017, the Trump administration was under serious pressure over the Mueller investigation and accusations that he was overly friendly to Putin. Arming Ukraine was one way for Trump to show that he could be tough on Russia. (RELATED: Chuck Todd Blows Up On GOP Senator For Asking About John Brennan)

But some observers have also speculated that certain members of Trump’s Ukraine team had a personal financial interest in promoting lethal arms sales to Kyiv. Politico reported that at the same time as former Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker “was pushing Trump to arm Ukraine, he also held positions with a major lobbying firm, BGR Group, and a think tank, the McCain Institute, that each had financial ties to Raytheon Co., which manufactures the Javelin system and earned millions from Trump’s decision.”