Former U.S. Officials Propose $3B Military Aid Package for Ukraine
By Sandra Erwin
As fighting rages in Eastern Ukraine, a group of former U.S. diplomats, military officers and government officials is asking the Obama administration and Congress to dramatically increase military aid to Kiev, including heavy weaponry that the White House so far has been reluctant to provide.
In a report the group plans to send to the White House Feb. 2, these officials ask the U.S. government to immediately approve $3 billion in military aid for Ukraine, spread over three years. The Ukrainians are heavily outgunned and not able to contain well-armed Russian separatists that are destabilizing the country; and of concern to the United States, the report says, the conflict threatens European security at large.
“We believe the response of the United States and the West in general has not been strong enough to deal with the challenge of Kremlin aggression,” said John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to
Ukraine and currently a policy director at the Atlantic Council.
Herbst and other former U.S. diplomats and defense officials traveled to Ukraine last month to evaluate the situation and concluded that the current policy of economic sanctions against Russia is unlikely to deter President Vladimir Putin. The trip was organized by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, the Center for a New American Security and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“Our big conclusion from the trip is that Ukraine needs serious military assistance,” Herbst said in an interview.
Congress last year passed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act that authorizes $350 million in aid over three years. That law, though a symbolic act of support, is not an appropriations bill so it is not real money, Herbst said. “And the amount is not enough.”
The group's final report, titled, “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do,” contends that Ukraine cannot defend itself unless it gets more advanced weaponry, and that arming Ukraine is key to deterring Putin. It argues that the West needs to "bolster deterrence in Ukraine by raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive.”
The $3 billion military aid package would pay for counter-battery radars, unmanned aerial vehicles, electronic counter-measures for use against opposing UAVs, secure communications systems, armored Humvees and medical support equipment. Ukrainian forces also need light anti-armor missiles, given the large numbers of armored vehicles that the Russians have deployed in Donetsk and
Luhansk and the abysmal condition of the Ukrainian military’s light anti-armor weapons, the report says. It suggests other NATO members besides the United States should provide military assistance to the Ukrainian military, particularly those whose forces operate former Soviet equipment that is compatible with the arms currently in the Ukrainian inventory.
Herbst said he expects some pushback on this proposal because of concerns that pouring arms into the region would fuel an already volatile situation. The report cautions that assisting Ukraine to defend itself is “not inconsistent with the search for a peaceful, political solution.” Russia’s actions in and against Ukraine “pose the gravest threat to European security in more than 30 years.”
Retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, was one of the participants in the study and spent five days in Ukraine talking to military leaders there.
He said in an interview that the military aid the group proposes is not “heavy handed,” but a reasonable response to increasing Russian aggression.
The group concluded that one of Putin’s vulnerabilities is that the majority of Russians do not want their country fighting a war in Ukraine and will not tolerate heavy casualties. If Ukrainian forces were better armed, Wald said, the pressure would shift to Putin to de-escalate the conflict to avoid risking additional losses and losing support at home.
“We need to show resolve with like-minded nations, but also make it difficult for Russia to throw its weight around,” he said. “We should help Ukrainians at least make it very difficult for the Russians.”
The West faces tough decisions because nobody knows how far Putin might go, Wald noted. What is known is that his actions are “an unbelievable violation of international law.”
While the Obama administration has supported “nonlethal” assistance to Ukraine, the military aid proposed in the report is hardly nonlethal. What is defined as “defensive” versus “offensive” weapons is not addressed specifically, but the report is emphatic that Ukraine might not survive as an independent nation unless it can better defend itself militarily.
The Kremlin since December has sent hundreds of pieces of advanced weaponry across the border — including artillery, rockets, tanks, and armored personnel carriers, said Herbst. “We heard 70 percent of casualties in Ukraine come from Russian missiles that they can’t locate,” which is why surveillance drones are recommended as part of the aid package.
“Yes, Ukraine needs lethal equipment,” Herbst said. “Without that, the chances of deterring further Russian aggression go way down.”
Along with Herbst and Wald, the group that developed the proposal included Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and former U.S. permanent representative to NATO; former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, chairman of the Center for a New American Security; Jan Lodal, former principal deputy undersecretary of defense; Steven Pifer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine; retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe; and Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former deputy secretary of state.
Several members of the group met with NATO and U.S. officials in Brussels and senior Ukrainian civilian and military officials in Kiev and at the Ukrainian military headquarters in Kramatorsk.
“We think the West does not understand properly the nature of the challenge,” said Herbst. The response thus far has been mostly economic sanctions, which help but are not sufficient, he added.
“We are not advocating that the West get dragged into a war. This is about Ukraine needing weapons to help deal with the aggression. I think our policy of not providing arms has facilitated that aggression.”
The Obama administration and many European governments have not been paying enough attention to this conflict, Herbst said. Since September, he noted, Ukraine has lost an additional 500 square kilometers of territory, hundreds of its soldiers have been killed in action, thousands wounded and innocent civilians are being injured and displaced.
“You can credit President Obama with strong leadership on sanctions but his position has not been of strategic understanding,” he said. “Everyone is waiting for American leadership. Nothing serious happens without the United States leading.”
Russian success in Ukraine, the report warns, would “fatally undermine Ukraine’s stability and embolden the Kremlin to further challenge the security order in Europe. It might tempt President Putin to use his doctrine of protecting ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in seeking territorial changes elsewhere in the neighborhood, including in the Baltic States, provoking a direct challenge to NATO.”
The U.S. government should “immediately change its policy from prohibiting lethal assistance to allowing provision of defensive military assistance, which may include lethal assistance, most importantly, light anti-armor missiles.”
Some lawmakers have voiced concern that the administration has yet to take any meaningful action following the passage of the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, which the president signed Dec. 18.
“Russian aggression in Ukraine has surged since January 13, resulting in the most deadly period since the ceasefire agreement was signed in Minsk on September 5,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote last week in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. “I believe that the administration must act immediately to influence the course of events on the ground,” he wrote. “While we should continue to pursue a diplomatic track, a more assertive international response, led by the United States, is required. … I strongly urge the administration to provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself.”
The administration so far has provided few clues on future action. Obama said that his signing the Ukraine Freedom Support Act does not “signal a change in the administration’s sanctions policy, which we have carefully calibrated in accordance with developments on the ground and coordinated with our allies and partners.” In a statement, Obama said the law “gives the administration additional authorities that could be utilized, if circumstances warranted. … [We] will continue to review and calibrate our sanctions to respond to Russia's actions.”