Mr. President, Don't Abandon Ukraine
President Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are set to meet in Helsinki next Monday. Ominously for NATO, Trump began the week by jumping on the issue of Germany’s contribution to the alliance. On Tuesday, he mused that dealing with Putin would be easier than talking to Great Britain’s Theresa May. The postwar order frays.
Yet Russia persists in its efforts to destabilize Ukraine. Russia’s illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea was not an isolated event. Despite a formal ceasefire, Russian-backed separatists are engaged in military conflict to deliver eastern Ukraine into Moscow’s hands.
Fortunately, the Trump administration has provided weapons, training and encouragement to Kiev, and Congress has imposed heightened sanctions against Russia. Reversing Obama administration policy, the Trump administration approved sales to Ukraine of defensive weapons such as Javelin missile systems and anti-sniper systems last December and again in March.
Anti-tank missiles and rifles won’t halt a Russian invasion, but they will make the Kremlin and its friends think twice about the costs of another land grab. As Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it: “What we want is the same thing the United States has stood for, for a long time in our history. That is an independent, sovereign Ukraine.”
Striking a similar chord, the State Department earlier this year commemorated Ukraine’s February 2014 “Revolution of Dignity.” Back then, Ukrainians converged on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev’s central square, demanding that their government “recognize the choice” of the citizens of Ukraine and “join Europe.” They also forced their Russophile prime minister out of office.
And yes things have improved. In 2014, Freedom House noted a marked deterioration of freedom in a Russian-dominated Ukraine. Now, Freedom House reports that Ukraine has “made progress in crafting and implementing a number of reforms.”
Still, Russia’s conduct remains defiant. Last week, a story emerged of a British couple apparently poisoned by the same Russian nerve agent that months ago sent former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia to an English hospital. One of the recent victims died on Sunday.
And in case anyone forgot, in July 2014 Russian missiles were used to shoot down a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukrainian airspace, killing all 298 passengers. A report issued in May 2018 by the Austrian and Dutch governments placed the blame on a Russian anti-aircraft rocket brigade that fired from Russian soil.
Against this backdrop, U.S. diplomatic and military assistance to Ukraine should be continued because it sends a clear reminder that America supports democracy at home and abroad. To be sure, Ukraine has not looked for a free lunch. In addition to suffering 10,000 deaths and the displacement of 1.6 million people, Ukraine has put its money where its mouth is.
Over the past few years, Ukraine’s defense spending has moved upward, from 3.2 percent of GDP to more than 6 percent. In 2018, Ukraine has increased defense spending by more than a quarter. In comparison, the U.S. expends 4.5 percent of GDP on defense, while Russia and Israel each spend more than 5 percent on their respective militaries. Indeed, outside of the U.S., Greece, Britain and Estonia are the only NATO members that meet the alliance’s 2 percent guideline on defense outlays. By every metric, Ukraine is more than pulling its weight.
In addition, Ukraine recently adopted its national security law, which sets out Ukraine’s national interests and strives for integration with the West. Among other things, the law provides for civilian control over the military, mandates that a minimum of 5 percent of GDP be directed toward defense annually, and gives the government greater control over military exports.
Last year, the Trump administration tamped down on U.S. travel and business with Cuba. Yet there are those in Congress who would incomprehensibly loosen up on Russia, despite its repeated failure to respect its neighbor’s territorial integrity. Indeed, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced new U.S. sanctions against Russia just four months ago. How these contradictory impulses can be squared is difficult to understand.
Fortunately, on Friday the State Department reiterated its commitment to Ukraine, saying that the U.S. “stands ready to continue supporting Ukraine’s defense and security sector reforms to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend its territorial integrity.” Clearly, this is no time for America to go wobbly.