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US Remains Ukraine’s Largest Military Aid Benefactor

On 5 March 2022 in western Ukraine, children and families make their way to the border to cross into Poland. Credit: UNICEF/Viktor Moskaliuk

WASHINGTON DC, Mar 11 2022 (IPS) - Conventional arms have been a central, and at times controversial, component of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship since 2014. Indeed, former President Trump’s impeachment proceedings originated with an alleged quid-pro-quo related suspension of military aid to Ukraine.

But as Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border expands and as fears of an invasion grow, 2022 headlines are again turning to Washington’s security cooperation with Kyiv.

Overview of U.S.-Ukrainian Military Assistance

U.S.-Ukrainian security cooperation is a relatively new defense relationship, beginning in earnest only after popular protests ousted Ukraine’s former President, Victor Yanukovych, and Russia forcefully annexed Crimea in 2014.

With persistent Russian efforts to reclaim its area of influence in Ukraine through military and non-military means, the United States has substantially expanded its security assistance to Kyiv, amounting to more than $2.7 billion since 2014.

U.S. military assistance has come, principally, from the Department of Defense’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative ($1.35 billion) and the Department of State’s Foreign Military Financing program ($721 million).

Those packages and several others, including from the International Military Education and Training program, made Ukraine among the most significant recipients of U.S. military aid, ranking 7th globally between FY2016-FY2020 and the largest such recipient in Europe, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.

Beyond the dollar amounts, the U.S. has provided foreign military training to at least 10,629 Ukrainian trainees between FY2015-FY2019.

But diplomatic sensitivities with Moscow moderated the early provision of U.S. military aid, and limited U.S. assistance to non-lethal equipment, including unarmed drones, counter-mortar radars, night vision devices, and armored Humvees.

That policy was reversed under President Trump, and in 2017 the U.S. began providing millions in lethal assistance, including Javelin anti-tank missiles – a sensitive defense technology that held symbolic significance for both Russia and Ukraine, as it had generally been reserved only for close U.S. allies and NATO members.

The transfer signaled a sharp departure from the previous policy and made a clear political statement. Even with the resumption of lethal assistance to Ukraine, stipulations for its provision were stringent and aimed at preventing a reprisal or escalation from Russia.

The Javelin missiles, for example, were required to be stored in Western Ukraine, away from the front lines of Ukraine’s fight with Moscow-backed separatists and its border with Russia.

Assistance in the Context of Russian Troop Concentrations

As Russia amassed troops and conducted large scale military exercises on Ukraine’s eastern border throughout 2021, the U.S. simultaneously expanded its military assistance. In November 2021, both Washington and Kyiv signed the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, which provided clear U.S. security commitments to Ukraine.

The agreement clearly articulated that the purpose of continued U.S. assistance was aimed at “Countering Russian Aggression.” In January 2022, with tensions along Ukraine’s eastern border at an all-time high, the U.S. began delivery of an additional $200 million in lethal and non-lethal aid directly from Department of Defense stockpiles. Ninety tons of that equipment had reached Ukraine’s border by the last week of January.

And the U.S. is not alone in sending military hardware to Ukraine. A handful of Baltic allies have been cleared to re-transfer U.S. origin weapons systems to Kyiv, including additional Javelin missiles as well as Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and related equipment. These weapons have increasingly aggravated Russia as the transfers underscore enhanced Ukraine-NATO security cooperation.

Britain, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Germany have also all provided both lethal and non-lethal military assistance, including drones, anti-tank missiles, artillery, and training.

Even with transfers from other partners, the U.S. remains Ukraine’s largest military aid benefactor, approving $650 million in defense assistance to Kyiv in just the past year – a bilateral high. However, despite the large quantity of weapons flowing into Ukraine, the Kyiv insists it needs more.

Aims and Efficacy of U.S. Security Cooperation

Consecutive U.S. administrations have used security assistance as both a practical and political measure of support for Ukraine and, as the State Department puts it, its effort “to advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations in support of a secure, prosperous, democratic, and free Ukraine.”

But while some analysts have praised defense reforms undertaken by Ukraine and its armed forces, particularly given the corroded state of Ukraine’s defense capabilities in the aftermath of its 2014 transition, U.S. security assistance has not ended the conflict in the country’s east or averted the current crisis with Russia.

Perhaps most importantly, some have argued that U.S. and European efforts to support a reorientation of Ukraine towards the West and integrate its defense architecture into NATO have contributed to this moment of crisis, and convinced Moscow it must act decisively to pre-empt the irreversible drift of its former stalwart ally.

Regardless, a Russian invasion would represent a qualitatively more significant defense threat than the static conflict with foreign backed separatists, and there are scant suggestions that a few short years of U.S. assistance would allow Kyiv to meaningfully thwart a concerted military push from Moscow.

Accordingly, all eyes remain on the diplomatic efforts underway between U.S. and Russian envoys with hopes that the worst can be averted.

Elias Yousif is a Research Analyst with the Stimson Center’s Conventional Defense Program. His research focuses on the global arms trade and arms control, issues related to remote warfare and use of force, and international security cooperation and child soldiers prevention. Prior to joining the Stimson Center, Elias was the Deputy Director of the Security Assistance Monitor at the Center for International Policy where he analyzed the impact of U.S. arms transfer and security assistance programs on international security, U.S. foreign policy, and global human rights practices.

IPS UN Bureau


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