Did Trump Leverage a Missile Sale to Ukraine for Political Gain?

This may not be the first time the Javelin antitank missile has been caught in the political crosshairs.

By Lara Seligman and Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian service members ride atop armored personnel carriers with Javelin antitank missiles during a military parade in Kyiv on Aug. 24, 2018, to celebrate Ukraine's Independence Day.
Ukrainian service members ride atop armored personnel carriers with Javelin antitank missiles during a military parade in Kyiv on Aug. 24, 2018, to celebrate Ukraine's Independence Day. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

In a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart this summer, U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to suggest that he could use as political leverage Ukraine’s request for additional advanced U.S. missiles that Kyiv sees as critical to its ability to deter a Russian ground invasion.

The most recent call may not have been the first time Javelin missiles have been caught in the political crosshairs. In April 2018, just weeks after the U.S. State Department approved a $47 million sale of Javelins to Ukraine, Kyiv halted investigations by an anti-corruption prosecutor into Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who worked for a decade for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, in an apparent effort not to rock the boat in Washington.

There is so far no evidence that Trump threatened to delay the 2018 missile sale in exchange for political favors. But a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which is at the center of a growing storm that threatens to engulf the U.S. president, raises new questions about future sales and his interactions with foreign leaders. Trump is now facing a formal impeachment inquiry after allegations emerged that he improperly pressured Ukraine’s government to dig up dirt on the son of his potential election rival Joe Biden.

Ukraine’s five-year conflict with Russia is caught up in the scandal. Military aid from the United States—primarily training and nonlethal equipment such as protective vests and night vision goggles—has been pivotal in helping Ukraine fend off Moscow-backed separatists and a Russian invasion.

Since the sale, the presence of the Javelin in Ukraine been a “game-changer” in keeping the Russian military from pushing further into the country, said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. Defense Department official who served for eight years as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration.

“If they want to push that battle line farther west, they can’t just get up and walk across no man’s land—they are going to have to have the weaponry to do that,” Townsend said. “Javelin is effective at blunting a big offensive.”

But Trump reportedly withheld a package of military aid to push Kyiv to look into Hunter Biden, who used to do business in the Eastern European country.

According to a transcript of the call released by the White House, Trump also appeared to hold hostage a key weapon system: the heat-seeking Javelin missile, a Raytheon and Lockheed Martin-built weapon capable of defeating modern armored tanks.

After Zelensky said his government was “almost ready” to purchase additional Javelin missiles for “defense purposes,” Trump responded: “I would like you to do us a favor though.”

In a confusing ramble, Trump suggested that Zelensky look into “the server” and mentioned CrowdStrike, a U.S. cybersecurity company that helped investigate a hack of Democratic National Committee servers that the Justice Department says was conducted by Russian operatives. The aim of the request was likely to cast doubt on claims that Russia influenced the 2016 presidential election that ushered him into office.

Later during the call, Trump asks Zelensky to work with Attorney General William Barr to “find out about” investigations of corruption regarding the younger Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian oil company.

The Obama administration for years resisted Ukraine’s repeated requests for Javelin missiles, said Townsend, who worked the Europe desk at the time. Though the Pentagon was pushing the sale in order to help Ukraine deter Russia’s advanced military, the administration ultimately decided Ukraine’s armed forces “were not ready to absorb” more sophisticated weapon systems, which require advanced training to use.

Since President Barack Obama left office, Ukraine’s military has advanced to the point where it can begin using more sophisticated weapon systems, Townsend said.

“Javelin was the symbol that they’d gone from JV to varsity—it just so happened that the Trump administration was in power when the Javelin sale went through,” Townsend said.

As the sale was being finalized in early 2018, Ukraine was dealing with the Trump administration on an entirely different front. Ukrainian investigators had opened four anti-corruption probes into Manafort related to his consulting work for Russian-leaning former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014.

Keenly aware of Trump’s sensitivity concerning the investigation by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller into alleged collusion between Russia and his campaign, Kyiv froze the anti-corruption probes in April 2018.

By that point, the Javelin sale had already gone through. Ukraine tested its new missiles for the first time the next month. Then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the test on Twitter, touting the missiles as “a very effective defensive weaponry, which is used in the event of Russian offensive on the positions of Ukrainian troops.”

The missiles are meant to be used for defensive purposes in the event that new violence breaks out in the conflict, which is currently simmering under a shaky cease-fire.

Whether Trump held up nonlethal military aid or Javelin missiles, the request is clearly “extortion,” Townsend said.

“This is so blunt, and it is for the wrong reasons,” he said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack