(Bloomberg) -- The military aid caught up in the storm engulfing Donald Trump wasn’t just nice for Ukraine to have. The country considered it crucial to holding forces backed by the might of neighboring Russia at bay.
Now, the U.S. president is fighting an impeachment process tied to allegations that he improperly pressured Ukraine’s president in a July phone call to provide dirt on Democratic rival Joe Biden -- and that Trump may have used a freeze on the aid as leverage.
The aid suspension, which lasted several months, was a turnaround because Trump’s administration had agreed under pressure from Congress to expand the supplies -- which President Barack Obama had limited to non-lethal items such as protective vests and radar equipment -- to include weapons such as Javelin anti-tank missiles.
The equipment that was stalled included .50-caliber sniper rifles capable of disabling armored vehicles, night-vision goggles, shoulder-fired grenade launchers, additional radar to pinpoint Russian artillery and scuba gear, according to Defense Department documents.
“This program funds defensive lethal weapons systems,” including two additional AN/TPQ-37 “Firefinder” artillery spotting radar and upgrades to 13 previously provided Firefinders that “will enhance the survivability of Ukrainian forces by providing early warning against” indirect Russian fire, according to an 11-page outline provided to congressional committees.
Without the weaponry, the ongoing war with Kremlin-backed fighters in Donbas -- which has killed more than 13,000 people -- could have proven even costlier.
“This aid is critically important,” said Volodymyr Horbulin, a former head of the National Defense and Security Council. “If it hadn’t been granted, we’d have been left alone, face-to-face with Russia.”
The White House cleared release of the frozen assistance this month under pressure from lawmakers on defense and foreign policy panels, including Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat who heads the House Armed Services Committee.
While the Kremlin has acknowledged only a minimal role in the five-year conflict in eastern Ukraine, Western countries accuse it of supplying arms, tanks and fighters. A case in point is the probe into the 2014 case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which found the missile that downed the plane belonged to a Russian-based military unit.
Ukraine’s army, meanwhile, was suffering from years of neglect when fighting erupted after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. To make up ground, the government is investing at least 5% of gross domestic product in the military. But, while improved, it’s no match for its larger neighbor.
The U.S. provides more than 90% of Ukraine’s military aid. Trump said Wednesday that he froze the aid not to pressure Ukraine to provide political dirt but in frustration that Germany and other Western nations weren’t footing more of the bill for such equipment.
“There is a concern that military aide for Ukraine can be used as element of political pressure in the context of political fight inside the U.S.,” said Olena Tregub, secretary general of the Kyiv-based Independent Defence Anti-Corruption Committee.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, for his part, is doing his best not to get drawn further into the furor in Washington.
Appearing alongside Trump in New York on Wednesday hours after the White House released a rough transcript of the July 25 call, Zelenskiy said his conversation with Trump “was normal” and nobody pushed me” inappropriately.
Staying as neutral as possible during the political firestorm in Washington is key for Ukraine, which also relies on the U.S. for billions of dollars of financing and political backing in talks to end the war.
To contact the reporters on this story: Volodymyr Verbyany in Kiev at email@example.com;Kateryna Choursina in Kiev at firstname.lastname@example.org;Tony Capaccio in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrea Dudik at firstname.lastname@example.org, ;Bill Faries at email@example.com, Larry Liebert
For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.