An advisor with U.S. Task Force Juvign greets Ukrainian counterparts at the Combat Training Center in Yavoriv, Ukraine. Photo Creidt: Wisconsin Dept of Military Affairs, U.S. Army.
Prior to September 2019, the relationship between the United States and Ukraine received scant attention in the media and among the American public. Beyond Washington’s foreign policy circles, the average American had little incentive to understand the nature and extent of US bilateral cooperation with Ukraine. Yet, in September, Ukraine’s partnership with the United States was thrust into the public spotlight. In this environment, Americans must not only understand why Ukraine matters for US foreign policy but also how U.S. security assistance is helping to lay a foundation for peace and stability in Ukraine.
Indeed, US security assistance to Ukraine matters now more than ever. The ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine has highlighted Russia’s willingness and ability to exercise influence over neighboring states. It has also created a testing ground for Russian hybrid tactics and emboldened Russian efforts to generate instability throughout Europe. The U.S. and its NATO allies thus have a compelling interest in stabilizing the conflict.
Facilitating peace and stability in Ukraine, however, requires hard power—a language the Kremlin both understands and appreciates. US security assistance to Ukraine is essential because it augments Ukrainian hard power. This has two key implications. First, it reinforces Ukrainian ‘sovereignty’ in a manner that comports with the Kremlin’s version of ‘sovereignty’: a state’s ability to defend its territory through force. Second, it enhances Ukraine’s bargaining position in negotiations with the Kremlin.
Although many pieces must align to break the stalemate and foster peace in eastern Ukraine, increasing Ukrainian hard power through security assistance helps Kyiv speak the Kremlin’s language. This is a necessary measure that will help move the ball forward.
Why Ukraine Matters to the United States
The U.S.-Ukraine partnership is an important one. Instability in Ukraine has provided a conduit for malign Russian behavior in the region, which has adversely affected NATO member states and triggered divisions within the Alliance. Due to its extended security commitments embedded in the NATO charter, the U.S. has an interest in fostering stability in Europe and deterring Russian aggression through strengthening the capacity of both NATO member states and partner countries, including Ukraine. Indeed, a resilient Ukraine will serve as a bulwark against Russian hybrid activity, reveal new economic opportunities, and strengthen liberal democratic underpinnings in a geopolitically consequential region.
A Snapshot of US Security Assistance to Ukraine
Since 2014, the U.S. has provided over $1.5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine.[i] A crucial shift occurred in 2017 when the Trump Administration began providing lethal aid to Ukraine—a measure the Obama Administration avoided, fearing it would further provoke Russia.
Security assistance packages to Ukraine under the Obama Administration included medical supplies, UAV’s, night vision devices, and counter-mortar radars.[ii] When President Trump assumed office, however, he continued non-lethal aid and approved the transfer of Javelin anti-tank missiles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, counter-artillery radars, counter-sniper equipment, Humvees, tactical drones, and electronic warfare detection and secure communication devices.[iii] Kyiv welcomed this move, regarding it as a necessary measure to help Ukraine uphold its territorial integrity and deter Russian aggression.
Security assistance to Ukraine is channeled through both the Pentagon and the US Department of State. In June 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense announced a $250 million aid package to Ukraine, which included the sale of more Javelin anti-tank missiles, while the US State Department pledged an additional $141 million in assistance.[iv] Javelins have been particularly integral to Ukraine’s efforts to counter Russian-backed separatists in the east.[v] Although the State Department’s security assistance was delivered to Kyiv unimpeded, the Pentagon’s $250 million aid package emerged at the epicenter of the Trump impeachment scandal when the President froze and then unfroze the aid for alleged domestic political purposes.
Yet, in the aftermath of the impeachment hearing, one message must not be lost: Security assistance to Ukraine matters, and it is working. US military assistance to Ukraine—which is part of a broader defense cooperation package that includes training, advisory services, and joint exercises—is transforming Ukraine’s defense sector, strengthening its military effectiveness, and enhancing NATO interoperability.[vi] Taken together, these developments are bolstering Kyiv’s foundation of hard power against an established adversary, which has implications for perceptions of Ukrainian sovereignty and its bargaining position at the negotiating table.
Why Defense Cooperation with Ukraine Matters – The ‘Sovereignty’ Dimension
Russian history has shaped the Kremlin’s appreciation for hard power, and with that, its distinct notion of ‘sovereignty.’ For the Kremlin, ‘sovereignty’ is not a right, but a capacity. A ‘sovereign state’ is one that is capable of defending its borders through force.[vii] According to this view, only a handful of great powers are truly sovereign states.[viii]
President Vladimir Putin’s notion of ‘sovereignty’ reinforces his claim to a privileged ‘sphere of influence’ along Russia’s periphery. Because the states that gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union are, on their own, militarily inferior to their Russian neighbor, President Putin implicitly refutes their sovereign status and believes that bordering states continue to fall under Russian authority. Indeed, Putin has leveraged this competing version of ‘sovereignty’—one rooted in ‘Great Power’ status and force—in an attempt to legitimize his military incursions into Georgia and Ukraine, and his support for separatists throughout the post-Soviet space.
Although Ukraine will not close the conventional military gap with Russia anytime soon, security assistance is strengthening Ukraine’s military capacity and, most importantly, its ability to defend its borders in the short-term. Crucially, this reinforces Ukrainian sovereignty the way the Kremlin understands sovereignty. Positive upgrades to Ukraine’s military arsenal, effectiveness, and professionalism that stem from US security assistance may affect the Kremlin’s attitude toward the conflict in the short to medium-term, causing the Kremlin to reassess whether the costs of continuing the conflict outweigh the benefits for Moscow. Furthermore, in the long-term, if Ukraine can effectively defend its territory through force while exhibiting a highly professionalized military apparatus, it may legitimize Ukrainian sovereignty in the eyes of the Kremlin.
Strengthening Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity will be crucial in resolving the ongoing conflict, as well as in preventing the outbreak of future conflicts.
Strengthening Ukraine’s Position at the Negotiating Table
As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky takes steps to negotiate with Russia and broker peace in eastern Ukraine, bolstering Ukraine’s conventional capabilities will help Kyiv both in the negotiating process and in the period after an agreement is reached.
US security assistance is, first, helping to create conditions under which peace talks can occur, primarily by pushing back Russian forces and increasing the costs of fighting for Moscow. Bolstering Ukraine’s conventional capabilities and military effectiveness will incentivize Russia to pursue negotiations in an effort to draw the conflict to a close. Second, once negotiations take place and an agreement is reached, US assistance will help strengthen Ukraine’s capacity to deter future Russian aggression and threaten legitimate consequences if Russia breaks the terms of a negotiated peace agreement.
Thus, in addition to enhancing Ukrainian ‘sovereignty’ in the Russian conception, hard power will strengthen Kyiv’s position at the negotiating table. For these reasons, US security assistance is helping to lay a foundation for peace and security in Ukraine, and in the region at large.
In the short to medium-term, it is imperative that Washington not only sustains security assistance but also looks for opportunities to expand defense cooperation with Kyiv. Moreover, the U.S. should encourage its European partners to continue providing security assistance to Ukraine to facilitate burden-sharing and to signal Europe’s unwavering commitment to countering Russian aggression in the region.
For all its advantages, however, security assistance to Ukraine must be carried out in concert with democratic and economic reforms. Kyiv must continue to bolster its democratic underpinnings and stabilize its economy by reducing corruption, strengthening rule of law, and enhancing civil liberties. Economic and political stability will play an indispensable role in fostering peace by improving Ukraine’s resilience in the face of evolving threats and by nurturing unity and tolerance among Ukraine’s diverse ethnic groups.
In the U.S., policymakers should capitalize on the publicity surrounding Ukraine to communicate to the American public the value of the US-Ukrainian partnership, and to underscore how U.S. assistance serves US strategic interests in the region.
[i] Joe Gould and Howard Altman, “Here’s what you need to know about the aid package to Ukraine that Trump delayed,” Defense News, September 25, 2019: https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2019/09/25/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-us-aid-package-to-ukraine-that-trump-delayed/.
[ii] Ryan Browne and Holmes Lybrand, “Fact-checking Trump’s claim that Obama gave Ukraine ‘pillows and sheets,’” CNN, September, 26, 2019: https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/26/politics/donald-trump-barack-obama-ukraine-military-aid-sheets-pillows-fact-check/index.html.
[iii] Joe Gould and Howard Altman, “Here’s what you need to know about the aid package to Ukraine that Trump delayed,” Defense News, September 25, 2019: https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2019/09/25/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-us-aid-package-to-ukraine-that-trump-delayed/.
[v] Joe Gould, “Trump to seek $250M in new lethal aid to Ukraine,” Defense News, December 4, 2019: https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2019/12/04/trump-to-seek-250m-in-new-lethal-aid-to-ukraine/.
[vi] “5 Things to Know about the US-Ukraine Defense Relationship,” US Department of Defense, November 7, 2019: https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2011746/5-things-to-know-about-the-us-ukraine-defense-relationship/.
[vii] Philip Remler, “Russia at the United Nations: Law, Sovereignty, and Legitimacy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 22, 2020: https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/01/22/russia-at-united-nations-law-sovereignty-and-legitimacy-pub-80753.