Ukraine Expects Trump to Approve Arms Deliveries

Ukrainian lawmakers are optimistic that the White House will give the green light for long-sought weapons.

A Ukrainian military drill takes place in Oct. 2017. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
A Ukrainian military drill takes place in Oct. 2017. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

With the final decision on sending weapons to Ukraine sitting on U.S. President Donald Trump’s desk, some Ukrainian politicians are rubbing their hands in anticipation.

“We are really satisfied with the acceleration of U.S.-Ukraine relations at the moment,” Artur Gerasymov, a member of Ukrainian parliament and chairman of a military subcommittee, told Foreign Policy. In particular, Kiev is excited by the prospect of getting not just moral support, but “concrete things,” including “defensive lethal weapon provision to Ukraine.”

“We are really on a very good track in this issue, and I believe that our strategic partner, the United States, will help us in this,” Gerasymov said, noting that—against expectations—cooperation has accelerated with the arrival of the Trump administration.

Multiple current and former officials and congressional aides tell FP that the president is deciding on the dispatch of lethal aid for Ukraine, which is mired in a three-year conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. Sources say the defensive arms could include sniper rifles, counter-artillery radar, air defense hardware, and possibly even Javelin antitank missiles.

If the United States were to finally send arms to Ukraine, it would mark a significant shift in U.S. policy—and a dramatic departure from Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Ahead of the Republican National Convention in July 2016, the Trump team worked to make sure the platform would not include a call to arm Ukraine.

The National Security Council declined to comment. A State Department official offered, “The United States has neither provided defensive weapons nor ruled out the option of doing so.”

Former Obama administration officials said the State Department and Pentagon wanted to send Ukraine lethal aid from the start but were stymied by President Barack Obama and then-national security advisor Susan Rice. Instead, the United States offered small amounts of nonlethal aid, such as radios, night vision goggles, first aid kits, and military ambulances.

Not giving lethal aid “became the de facto policy, and then the urgency slipped away,” Max Bergmann, an Obama administration State Department official, said.

Kurt Volker, the Trump administration’s special representative for Ukraine negotiations, supports sending lethal aid, as does the Pentagon, congressional staffers said. 

Europe, on the other hand, is not so keen. “Many European allies would also likely react negatively to such a U.S. move,” Erik Brattberg of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told FP. “This strategy is not risk-free and could easily backfire if Russia chooses to further escalate in return.”

But more than three years into the conflict, Ukraine’s defensive needs—and the weaponry it may get—aren’t what they used to be, said Hannah Thoburn of the Hudson Institute. Anti-tank weaponry, for instance, would have been useful years ago, but “it’s not clear to me at this point in the conflict it would be,” she said. The war is now lower-intensity, characterized by mortar duels. “We’re not necessarily talking rolling battles.”

The definition of what constitutes “defensive arms” is up for grabs. “There’s a big question as to what ‘defensive armaments’ are. I really question the utility of giving them weapons like Javelin missiles that may be called defensive but have offensive capabilities,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters on Tuesday, shortly after returning from a trip to Ukraine, referring to shoulder-fired, anti-tank rockets.

It remains unclear if the Trump administration merely wants to use the threat of sending arms to Ukraine as a way to push Moscow to make concessions, or if it’s ready to go ahead and deliver weapons to Kiev.

Even if the conflict has settled down lately, Ukrainians still want advanced weaponry, Thoburn said. “They believe, rightly, that there is a great chance the war could change again and move from this lukewarm moment into something a lot hotter,” she said. Such weapons could raise the cost of Russian intervention, Gerasymov suggested.

Others think the provision of lethal aid could give Volker more leverage in his negotiations with Russia—and make Russia take Ukraine more seriously. Earlier this month, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko proposed a bill that would legally label Russia an aggressor and call Donetsk and Luhansk “temporarily occupied.” The Kremlin called the bill “unacceptable.”

The real risk, many say, is that shipping arms to Kiev could drive the Kremlin to escalate the conflict. For Moscow, whether Ukraine is in its orbit or drifts closer to the West isn’t a far-off issue but a nearly existential affair.

“Whatever we do,” Charles Kupchan, former senior NSC director for European affairs in the Obama administration, told FP, “the Russians will be willing to go one step further.”

Update: This piece was updated to include comment from the State Department.

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer