Military ammunition sale to Ukraine faces year-long delay

The military assistance package to Ukraine that’s at the center of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry isn’t the only arms transfer to that country that has faced delays as President Trump pushed the Ukrainian leader to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden.

According to sources familiar with the matter, a separate $10 million sale of ammunition has mysteriously remained in limbo for almost a year with no explanation from the Trump administration. The delayed ammunition deal is part of what sources described as a broader slowdown in State Department approvals of commercial arms sales to Ukraine.

The White House and State Department did not respond to requests for comment on the delays.

Celebrations on the fifth anniversary of the National Guard of Ukraine, March 26, 2019. (Photo: Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The ammunition deal was held up to prior to the July 25 conversation in which Trump reportedly urged his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Biden’s son on eight separate occasions. However, any slowdown in support for the Ukrainian military is likely to draw scrutiny as Democrats pursue an impeachment inquiry focused on concerns related to Trump’s conversations with Zelensky about Biden’s son, who had business dealings in Ukraine.

Trump’s conversation with Zelensky was reportedly part of a whistleblower complaint made to the inspector general of the intelligence community. Reports of the complaint prompted concerns Trump was asking a foreign country to intervene to hurt Biden’s presidential campaign. The Washington Post reported Monday evening that Trump ordered nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine withheld just one week prior to that call.

That aid package was released earlier this month and administration officials told the Post it had been delayed because of concerns about “corruption” in Ukraine. The ammunition sale, in the meantime, remains in limbo.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The delayed $10 million ammunition sale, which has not previously been reported, is for NATO-compliant 7.62 x 51 and 12.7 x 99 ammunition. The deal is a direct commercial sale, which is negotiated between private companies and foreign buyers, but must be licensed by the U.S. State Department. In this case, the export license was submitted to the State Department in November of last year and has not been approved, according to a source, who was directly involved with the deal, but asked not to be identified because of potential professional retaliation.

“This was a simple item,” said the source, whose company has had previous State Department-approved shipments to Ukraine approved without problems.

The State Department does not give exact timelines for export approvals, but its guidance says licenses typically take a minimum of one to two months. Ukroboronprom, the Ukrainian state-owned arms conglomerate, the official buyer of the ammunition, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ammunition is crucial to Ukraine’s military, which has been battling Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern region since 2014. Prior to the war, Ukraine’s sole small-arms ammunition factory was located in Luhansk. That city is now part of the territory controlled by the separatists. In 2017, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko allocated money to help build a new ammunition factory, but it does not produce the NATO-compliant ammunition that is part of the delayed U.S. arms sale.

For NATO-member countries, using a standard caliber allows them to share ammunition stores. In Ukraine, obtaining supplies of NATO-compliant ammunition is regarded as a sign the country is moving toward Western equipment and away from Moscow’s sphere of influence. “To not approve [Western] exports is to push Ukraine to Russia,” said the source familiar with the sale.

A second source involved in arms transfers to Ukraine said the stalled ammunition transfer appears to reflect a larger slowdown, if not a freeze, on approvals for direct commercial sales to Ukraine.

The claim is a hard one to substantiate, since the State Department does not disclose individual direct commercial sales. The department is required to release annual reports to Congress that break down total sales by country, but the report for last year, which was due in February, has still not been released. The State Department did not respond to questions about why that report was delayed.

The Trump administration’s policy toward Ukraine had, at least until mid-2018, generally been a positive one when it came to arms transfers. In December 2017, President Trump approved the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine, including American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles. The administration touted the move as a way to deter Russian aggression.

A soldier rides with a Javelin anti-tank missile on Ukrainian Independence Day in Kiev, Aug. 24, 2018. (Photo: Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

That decision was a turnaround from the Obama administration, which had resisted selling any weapons to Ukraine. In an interview earlier this year, John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, acknowledged the Obama White House’s reluctance to sell weapons to the government in Kiev. “Their refusal to sell anything that was lethal was a hallmark of their policy to end,” said Herbst of the Obama administration.

A current U.S. official who was previously involved with arms transfers to Ukraine said that, earlier in the Trump administration, the president and other senior officials were generally supportive of sales to Ukraine. “[James] Mattis, [Rex] Tillerson and [H.R.] McMaster were fully onboard,” the U.S. former official said of the former secretaries of defense and state, and Trump’s second national security adviser.

Nonetheless, the official said members of the Trump administration who wanted to help the Ukrainian military found themselves trying to come up with more politically palatable phraseology for what they were trying to accomplish. According to the official, the supporters of arming the Ukrainians cast the aid as “defensive weaponry.”

“Early on we couldn’t provide them sniper training … because [others in the U.S. government] viewed that as too offensive,” the official said. This was an unrealistic view, the official said. “If you’re getting sniped by the enemy along the front line, you need to provide countersniper training, and countersniper training is sniper training.”

These concerns about providing military aid to Ukraine are potentially a reason for delays in arms sales. The official said some in the government were concerned about providing anything to Ukraine that could be deemed offensive and ensuring weapons would only be used defensively is a tall order.

“I don’t know how you can distinguish offensive from defensive weaponry or aid,” the official said.

President Trump at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 24, 2019. (Photo: Richard Drew/AP)

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