White House Relents on Sending Needed Military Aid to Ukraine

Body armor, night vision gear, radios approved after initial rejection

Ukrainian soldiers / AP
June 5, 2014

After initially denying Ukrainian military requests for key nonlethal aid, the White House on Wednesday approved urgently needed equipment for troops battling pro-Russian insurgents.

The new military assistance includes body armor, night vision goggles, and communications equipment requested by the Ukrainians, but initially rejected by the Obama administration as part of its efforts to avoid upsetting Moscow.

"The United States is working to bolster Ukraine’s ability to secure its borders and preserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of Russian occupation of Crimea and a concerted effort by Russian-backed separatists to destabilize eastern Ukraine," the White House said in a statement announcing the aid.

The latest aid package includes $5 million for body armor, night vision goggles, and additional communications equipment.

"It is easy to be critical when I think of all the brave young Ukrainian soldiers of the 95th Brigade whom I met at the front and were since killed while the U.S. deliberated sending aid," said Phillip Karber, who in April was part of a bipartisan fact-finding mission to Ukraine that urged sending the military aid.

"But the president deserves credit for being willing to recognize that sanctions are not stopping the Russian orchestration of surrogates invading Ukraine and having the courage to recalibrate his policy to the new conditions of Putin’s proxy war," he said.

Karber said he and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander, do not subscribe to Washington "whining" about a dysfunctional Congress.

"If it had not been for the leadership of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, with leaders from both sides of the aisle supporting them, this issue would never have made it to the president’s attention," Karber said. "Hopefully it will be a model example of how bipartisanship on security issues can work and why it’s good for America."

Earlier U.S. military equipment was limited to 300,000 Meals Ready-to-Eat and medical supplies, helmets, sleeping mats, and water purification gear.

Additionally, the administration is using funds under the Cooperative Threat Reduction fund to provide goods to the Ukrainian State Border Guard Services, including clothing, shelters, small power generators and hand fuel pumps, engineering equipment, communications equipment, vehicles, and non-lethal individual tactical gear.

Release of the more effective military aid follows harsh words by President Obama over Russia’s military annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and continuing efforts to destabilize its southern neighbor.

Obama said Russian actions in Ukraine are illegal and Russian President Vladimir Putin must "get back into a lane of international law."

"The mere fact that some of the Russian soldiers have moved back from the border and that Russia is now destabilizing Ukraine through surrogates, rather than overtly and explicitly, does not mean that we can afford three months, or four months, or six months, of continued violence and conflict in eastern Ukraine," he said.

Karber and Clark led a bipartisan fact-finding mission to Ukraine in April. Upon their return the two former officials urged the administration in a report to send the body armor, goggles, and communications gear, as well as aircraft fuel, after visiting Ukrainian troops near the Russian border, where until recently some 80,000 Russian troops had massed while Russian agents carried out subversion operations in the eastern part of the country.

The Washington Free Beacon first reported April 14 that the administration was withholding the needed military aide that U.S. officials had rejected as "force multipliers" for the Ukrainians, as part of U.S. policy of avoiding intervention.

"Independent of American high-level policy, implementation of U.S. non-lethal military aid is seriously flawed and needs immediate correction," the report by Clark and Karber said.

The report said despite requests from the Kiev government for body armor, night vision goggles, secure communications gear, and aviation fuel, the assistance was turned down as "provocative."

Instead, a confusing "force multiplier" criteria was used to prohibit significant nonlethal military aid.

U.S. officials have said the limit on the delivery of significant non-lethal aid was part of the administration’s conciliatory policy of seeking to avoid upsetting relations with Moscow.

Policymakers initially believed that sending non-lethal military aid would be viewed as a provocation and prompt Moscow to invade and seize a land bridge in Ukraine as a supply route between Crimea and Russia.

Aid deliveries also were hampered last spring by bureaucratic bottlenecks as the Pentagon is facing severe defense budget shortfalls to maintain its own forces, the report said.

The body armor that is capable of stopping sniper rounds was an urgent need because Ukrainian troops faced Russian snipers and military agents who are targeting officers in long-range assassinations.

The current Ukrainian military lacks sufficient body armor capable of stopping sniper fire.

The night vision goggles also are urgently needed to stop nighttime military infiltration routes.

A third need is U.S. digital satellite radios for communications among units operating along the border. The Ukrainians currently are using Soviet-era analog military communications gear that would be disabled in any conflict by Russian electronic warfare.

The White House had said that the reason for the limited non-lethal military aid was a result of the administration’s main focus on economic and diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the crisis.

In the White House statement, the administration said that as of early June military deliveries to Ukraine included 20-person shelters, sleeping bags, fuel filter adapters, barbed wire, patrol flashlights, perimeter alarm systems, fuel pumps, concertina wire, vehicle batteries, spare tires, binoculars, excavators, trucks, generators, food storage freezers, field stoves, and communications gear that was provided to the Ukrainian Border Guard Service, "for use in monitoring and securing their borders."

There was no immediate comment from the White House on the new aid delivery.

Senior U.S. defense officials met with Ukrainian military officials in Kiev for defense talks, which the statement described as "substantive discussions on regional security, defense cooperation, and areas for growth in the U.S.-Ukraine defense relationship."

Then in early June additional defense talks were held in Kiev on defense cooperation and U.S. support.

"In early June, U.S. European Command will hold a general/flag officer steering group meeting with Ukrainian counterparts in Kiev to set the strategic direction for future military-to-military cooperation," the statement said.