U.S. policy toward Ukraine is in urgent need of an overhaul, and President Obama himself needs to lead the charge. The front-page story in Tuesday’s Washington Post that the non-lethal assistance the United States has been providing to Ukraine is outdated and falling apart underscored that there is no time to waste in fixing some serious problems. Three such problems can and should be fixed quickly.
Let’s start with the Post report. According to reporter Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “The United States has delivered more than $260 million in non-lethal military equipment to help the government of Ukraine in its fight against a Russian-backed insurgency, but some of the U.S.-supplied gear meant to protect and transport Ukrainian military forces is little more than junk.” Gibbons-Neff cited, for example, Humvees that are nearly thirty years old.
Providing such equipment has been a blow to Ukrainians’ morale and America’s standing in Ukraine. “If the Americans are going to send us equipment, don’t send us secondhand stuff,” Gibbons-Neff quotes one Ukrainian special forces commander. The Pentagon should be able to find equipment and materiel that is more modern and in good shape. This problem should be easy to address.
The second problem—providing lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine to help it fend off Vladimir Putin’s aggression— is harder, because it would require the President to reverse himself. Congress has passed several pieces of legislation by large bipartisan majorities calling for the provision of lethal arms to Ukraine, and virtually every member of the Cabinet as well as his Vice President support such a step; President Obama is the lone holdout. President Petro Poroshenko and other senior Ukrainian officials have requested shoulder-mounted Javelin anti-tank missiles and other systems to help thwart further Russian advances into Ukrainian territory. Obama has explained his opposition to their requests by warning that such a move would trigger escalation by Russia. A more likely result would be that Putin would think twice before launching further into Ukraine in the face of a Ukrainian fighting force that has been beefed up by American anti-tank weapons.
It’s worth recalling the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine agreed to surrender the nuclear weapons it inherited from the collapse of the USSR in exchange for a pledge from the other signatories—Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—that they would uphold and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. While not a formal treaty, the Budapest Memorandum played a key role in reducing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction because Ukraine lived up to its end of the deal. Russia, by contrast, has not by invading its neighbor and annexing Crimea. We should live up to our end of the deal by complying with the Ukrainian pleas for defensive weapons; they are not asking for U.S. troops on the ground but the means by which to defend themselves.
The third problem is the fact that Obama has not set foot in Ukraine once since becoming President, though he did travel there once while he was in the Senate. The biggest challenge in Europe in decades has been Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, a country of 45 million people. In recognition of that, most Western leaders have visited Kyiv at least once to show Ukrainians their support. Could Obama not have tacked on a quick visit while in Europe, for example after his recent trip to Paris?
Next week, Vice President Biden will be making his fifth visit to Ukraine, but his engagement, while laudable, is no substitute for much-needed engagement by his boss. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago, President Obama has met with Putin more times than he has with Poroshenko, despite asserting in January in his State of the Union speech that he is leading efforts to isolate Russia. An Obama visit to Kyiv to demonstrate solidarity with the Ukrainian people would be a huge boost to Ukraine—there is, after all, nothing like Air Force One landing in one’s country and all that comes with it.
The Obama Administration deserves credit for the sanctions it has imposed against the Putin regime, though more should be done to preempt, not react to, Putin’s aggression. The Administration has rightly pressed Ukrainian leaders to get serious about fighting corruption, and it has provided several billion dollars in assistance through loans, though it could do more (and the Europeans should be doing much more). We should also provide much more humanitarian assistance for those Ukrainians displaced and affected by Russia’s invasion.
The problems identified above are serious and badly hurting the U.S. image in Ukraine. They also send the wrong signal to Putin: that we are not paying sufficient attention to Ukraine at a time when it needs us more than ever. The President should order his team to properly equip Ukraine and reverse his own objections to providing lethal assistance. It would be best if he announced such corrections in policy in person in Kyiv.