The United States’ policy in Eastern Europe has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War. In Ukraine, protestors that were part of the Maidan Revolution of 2014 ousted the pro-Russia President Yanukovych, prompting a Russian reaction in Crimea and the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. In spring 2014, Crimea was formally annexed by Russia following a referendum, and then fighting broke out in Donetsk and Luhansk. The United States had been supportive of a democratic outcome to the initial protests, and then supported the new, democratically elected Ukrainian government after the success of the revolution. Following violent escalation in Eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration began to support the Ukrainian armed forces with non-lethal aid. After a transfer of power in Washington in 2017, the new Trump administration began to cast doubt on the maintenance of the status quo of American policy in Eastern Europe. Initially, it was feared President Trump might be too closely aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recently, however, President Trump approved the issuing of licenses for the transfer of lethal aid to the Ukrainian government. This departure from the de facto foreign policy of the Obama Administration, while mitigated by several important factors, has the potential to change the course of the war in Ukraine, perhaps leading to escalation. Nonetheless, the fight for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine seems to have been somewhat supported by Washington.
The United States saw a shift in political power last year, from the Democratic President Barack Obama to the newly elected Republican President Donald Trump. This change has resulted in several significant policy shifts for the United States. In the last several years, American policy with regards to Ukraine has also shifted significantly after protesters toppled the pro-Russian president in 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and fighting broke out in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine between the Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia protestors allegedly backed by the Russian military. The United States has been generally supportive of the Ukrainian protesters that initially toppled the government in 2014, and has supported the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state since 2014. However, this policy was significantly altered in recent months as the Trump administration reviewed the issuing of licenses for the sale of lethal aid to Ukraine.
The election of President Viktor Yanukovych took place in Ukraine in 2010. Between his election and subsequent removal from power, Yanukovych installed his allies into leading political positions, dominating the Ukrainian government with extraordinarily pro-Russia decision makers from Ukraine’s eastern regions.1 Significant corruption colored the Yanukovych administration, and demonstrations started on 21 November 2013 in Independence Square (Ukrainian: Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kiev, beginning what is known as the Maidan Revolution.2 The initially peaceful protests were attempting to push President Yanukovych to sign an association agreement deal with the European Union, but on 29 November 2013, the police, in riot gear, began to try and repress the protestors. Significant violence followed. On 20 February 2014, 100 people died in Kiev in 48 hours due to clashes between protesters and the police,3 and on 22 February, Yanukovych fled Kiev. New elections were announced for 25 May 2014.4
Yanukovych was a strong ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was vehemently opposed to the success of the revolution and the subsequent removal from power of a close ally. Putin allegedly prepared plans for the annexation of the southern Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and then on 16 March 2014, a referendum organized by the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the Sevastopol government was held in Crimea. Although the vote was opposed and condemned by western powers, 96% of people in Crimea voted to join Russia, and Putin annexed Crimea on 18 March 2014.5 Pro-Russian nationalists also began to protest in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. These protests quickly become violent, as pro-Russian protesters seized control of government buildings on 7 April 2014, and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine declared themselves as independent “People’s Republics”—effectively administered by the Russian Federation—on 11 May 2014.6 In support of the pro-Russia People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine are many pro-Russian nationalist forces from Russia, and soldiers and equipment from the Russian military. The Russian government in Moscow denies that Russia military units were officially sent into Ukraine, yet Ukrainians claim these soldiers are fighting against the Ukrainian army.7 Moreover, Russian equipment is being used to continue violence8 in the eastern part of the country to this day. Despite the election of a new president (Petro Poroshenko) on 25 May 2014, and an attempted peace deal signed in Minsk, Belarus in September 2014, Russia continues to spur and enable violence.9
US President Barack Obama was in office during the Maidan Uprising in Ukraine and the beginning of the subsequent violence. Obama’s foreign policy was tied to the same rhetoric that most American Administrations have loosely followed since the end of the Cold War: security, peace, and cooperation in Europe, while ensuring Russian hegemony is minimized and avoiding the creation of a “Cold War Chessboard” in Eastern Europe.10 To that end, the Obama administration was in favor of the Maidan Revolution and supported the election of Petro Poroshenko while denouncing Russian aggression in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. In 2014, the United States Congress passed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, facilitating shipments of weapons and aid to the Ukrainian government to assist in its fight against Russia. In spite of this congressional approval, President Obama “never authorized large commercial or government sales”11 of lethal aid, instead providing non-lethal aid. In spite of the Departments of Defense and State promoting the transfer of lethal aid to Ukraine, Obama and his National Security Advisor were opposed because of the risk that lethal armaments may push the Kremlin to escalate the conflict or retaliate through other means.12 Likewise, an escalation from the Kremlin would have drawn the United States further into the conflict. Instead, the aid sent to support the Ukrainian government’s fight against pro-Russian forces took the form of “radios, night vision goggles, first aid kits, military ambulances,”13 and other non-lethal aid. According to State Department officials, not providing lethal aid became the de facto American policy under the Obama administration, while still supporting the Ukrainian government and attempting to look for a multilateral international peace agreement.14
The election of President Donald Trump in November 2016 and his inauguration in January 2017 marked a turning point for American foreign and domestic policy. United States policy on Ukraine has shifted in accordance with the new rhetoric and ideology of the current administration, and because of President Trump’s mercurial attitude towards the issue. In September 2015 in Ukraine, 14 months before his election as president, Trump spoke in Ukraine, advocating a more active and forceful response to Russian aggression in the east.15 However, in April 2016, Trump hired Paul Manafort as his campaign manager. Manafort had previously worked for ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s 2010 presidential campaign, while also advising his pro-Russian party for 8 years.16 Between 2007 and 2012, Yanukovych’s party “earmarked $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments to Manafort for his work.”17 Manafort claims he did not receive these payments, but nonetheless, with Manafort at the helm of the Trump Campaign, Trump’s rhetoric, and in turn the rhetoric of the entire Republican Party, shifted and toned down its typically pro-Ukrainian discourse. In particular, Trump’s campaign worked to make sure that the GOP Platform would not include a “call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces.”18
The culminating event in the shift of Trump’s rhetoric occurred when the Trump campaign pushed the Republican National Convention to change the aid it advocated sending to the Ukrainian army from “lethal defense weapons” to “appropriate assistance.”19 Trump took office in January 2017, and soon after, the Trump administration was accused of allegedly benefitting from Russian interference during the campaign, including hacking the files of the Democratic Party and promoting targeted political advertisements from abroad, although nothing has been definitively proven.20 These allegations prompted some to label President Trump a puppet of the Kremlin.21 However, President Trump and his administration have pushed back against this narrative. In August 2017, the US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, reminded Ukraine that the US has sent $750 million worth of aid to Ukraine in the last several years and said that the “US military leadership [was] reviewing the American position on providing defensive lethal weapons,”22 a policy which began to gain more traction in the US government in the fall of 2017.
By October 2017, “the final decision on sending weapons to Ukraine” was “sitting on President Trump’s desk.”23 Later in the fall, the National Security Council presented a plan to arm Ukraine to President Trump, advocating “a $47 million grant package that would supply Ukraine with high-tech defensive weaponry including Javelin anti-tank missiles.”24 By the end of November 2017, Congress had weighed in, and the decision to sell lethal weapons was all in President Trump’s hands.25 On 13 December 2017, without announcement, the Trump administration approved “a commercial license authorizing the export of Model M107A1 Sniper Systems, ammunition, and associated parts and accessories to Ukraine, a sale valued at $41.5 million.”26 Notably missing from this license were Javelin anti-tank missiles and other high-tech defensive weaponry. On one hand, this could be due in part to these weapons’ growing irrelevance in the war in Ukraine, as “the war is now lower-intensity [than it was in 2014], characterized by mortar duels” and much less tank activity.27 On the other hand, Trump’s shift in policy may be an attempt to increase support to the Ukrainian government without alienating or angering Russia.
The most common concern with arming Ukraine with lethal aid is that it would escalate the conflict and antagonize Russia. However, Defense Secretary Mattis has argued “defensive weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor, and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor.”28 Even so, arming Ukraine would almost certainly provoke the Kremlin, whether or not it would be logical for Russian officials to see it as such. Therefore, four important, mitigating actions must be taken into account in addition to the exclusion of the anti-tank weapons desired by Ukraine when gauging this shift in US foreign policy. First, the Trump administration did sign the policy change, but did not roll it out or have any other fanfare, perhaps in an attempt not to glorify arming a country against Russia, to attempt to lessen any potentially adverse Russian reaction.29 Second, as of this writing, the Trump administration has not actually sold or transferred any lethal weaponry to Ukraine; the change in policy is just intended to allow for issuing commercial licenses in order to do so in the future.30 Third, the United States’ policy of not providing lethal aid to Ukraine was never legally defined under the Obama administration; it was merely a de facto executive policy that has changed along with the executive.31 Fourth, the United States was not the only country to change its policy, as “Canada also approved lethal defense sales to Ukraine” the same week, likely following the American lead, according to US officials.32
Apart from the approval to issue licenses for the sale of arms to the Ukrainian government, and the surprisingly pro-Russian rhetoric that critics claim has emanated from President Trump and close advisors, most of Trump’s policy in Ukraine has stayed fairly similar to that of his predecessor. On 26 January 2018, the Treasury Department issued a new set of sanctions against pro-Russian elements involved in the violence in eastern Ukraine. 21 individuals and 9 entities had sanctions enacted against them, including “technology, construction, and shipping firms”33 and the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic. They will be “banned from the United States financial system, and barred from using the US dollar. All of their assets subject to US jurisdiction will be frozen.”34 This policy of sanctions is similar to the Obama administration’s policy, and its continuation exemplifies the general similarities in American policy and rhetoric.
The Trump administration has orchestrated a slight shift by approving the sale of lethal defensive aid to the Ukrainian government, but administration officials softened the impacts of this policy change. The exclusion of anti-tank weaponry, the lack of announcement, and the absence of an actual weapon transfer significantly toned down the policy of arming Ukraine. The United States’ policy in Ukraine will always fall behind Russia’s because of American strategic interests. At the end of the day, even if the weapons do not escalate the conflict in Ukraine, an active presence is more important to Russia’s strategic interests than the United States’.35 The US is closer to NATO than Ukraine, and while Ukraine has served as an American ally in the past, the most important allies for the United States to defend from Russian expansionism for strategic reasons are its NATO allies.36
In general, the Trump administration has yet to meaningfully depart from the line followed by the Obama administration. It is important to look at why Trump decided to arm Ukraine. Was it to actually to arm Ukraine and to toe the traditional Republican Party line? Or was it an attempt to appear tough on Russia, to dismiss separate allegations about collusion with (or control by) Russian officials?37 Or was it to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to the “Tripartite agreement of January, 14 1994 [under which] the USA, UK, and Russia were obliged to support Ukraine in the event that its sovereignty, territorial integrity, or independence is threatened?”38 Only time will tell, and the development of this policy, alongside the American relationship with Russia will be the indicators.
For the Ukrainian people, however, President Trump’s rationale is secondary to the support itself. They are going to receive weaponry to defend their country; they will be the ones on the field of battle; they are uninterested in why Trump authorized the sale in the first place. The only thing they care about is being able to fight for their sovereignty and homeland.
These weapons represent a step forward for the Ukrainian Army. Now that lethal arms sales have begun to be authorized, they may see increased support from the United States and her allies in the future. Whether these weapons and potential future support will strengthen Ukraine’s hand remains to be seen; they could just as easily escalate the conflict as mitigate it. However, a change in the conflict could present a real opportunity for the Ukrainians to escape the bloody stalemate in which they have been mired for the last three years. As this policy appears to promote of the principles of a democratic elections, sovereignty, and independence, the possibility of a change in the course of the war justifies the risk of escalation from this policy shift; were the shift more significant, it may not be so.