In response to Western criticism of actions in Ukraine, Russia has accused the United States of refusing to comply with a fragile international peace deal. But the Pentagon’s involvement in the country as a whole is actually relatively minor.
In February, the presidents of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany came up with a new agreement to end the fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Kiev’s troops. Commonly known as Minsk II, the leaders signed the protocol in the Belarusian capital in hopes of rebooting an earlier, failed protocol.
“U.S. soldiers are firmly entrenched in Ukraine, which constitutes a flagrant violation of article 10 of the February 12 Minsk Agreement”, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told reporters on Sept. 3. Article 10 does require all foreign forces and military equipment, as well as mercenaries, to leave Ukraine without specifying any particular zones. However, the language in the rest of the document clearly focuses solely on the contested Donbass area.
Moscow denies that is supplies weapons to the separatists or has troops actively engaged in the conflict. But estimates from the Pentagon, NATO and independent monitoring groups such as Bellingcat based on traditional intelligence, commercial satellite imagery, local interviews and social media suggest the Kremlin has sent thousands of troops to Ukraine. These “volunteers” have brought heavy weapons such as T-64 tanks, mobile rocket launchers, self-propelled howitzers and more to aid separatist forces.
By comparison, American forces are barely in the country on any sort of permanent basis or in any significant numbers. Much to the dismay of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and members of Congress in Washington, the Pentagon’s aid has been relatively limited.
After Moscow’s troops seized the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, the Pentagon rushed troops and warplanes to NATO’s eastern borders. At the same time, Washington has sent almost $250 million worth of military gear to the Ukraine’s own military.
Washington had originally planned to give Ukraine around $140 million worth of foreign aid in total during the 2015 fiscal year, according to the official ForeignAssistance.gov website. In the next fiscal period, the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) nearly quadrupled that number.
But the bulk of those funds will go to economic development activities to help the country try and recover from a series crises that began with massive political protests in Kiev in November 2013. American officials have earmarked less than $100 million for “peace and security” programs at base.
In contrast, Washington allotted almost three times as much aid Iraq’s security forces this past year at the outset. American authorities planned to give Afghanistan troops and police – where the Pentagon is currently drawing down its involvement – a similar amount.
In Ukraine, the Pentagon and State Department have had to rely on other, more complicated funding streams to find money for everything. Created specifically to respond to the current situation, the United States’ new European Reassurance Initiative has only paid for a third of the gear.
In 2014, the White House announced the initiative after American and NATO officials became “deeply concerned by Russia’s […] other provocative actions in Ukraine”, an official fact sheet stated. Washington directed the bulk of the effort at NATO member nations near Russia, such as Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
U.S. President Barack Obama has also used his executive authority to transfers $25 million worth of equipment straight from American stocks. Under the present amended version of the Foreign Relations Act of 1961, last enacted in 2014, the president can tell the Pentagon to “drawdown” up to $100 million worth of equipment and send it overseas in an emergency every year.
Despite raiding the warehouses of one of the most powerful militaries in the world, all of the American aid to Ukraine so far has also been “non-lethal” – so no guns or ammunition. Under this definition, these deliveries still included small drones, bomb-disposal robots, up-armored Humvees, trucks, bulldozers, radars, communication gear, body armor and other significant military equipment.
In March, the American embassy in Kiev held a major ceremony to mark the arrival of the first 10 Humvees. “President Poroshenko thanked the United States for its ongoing assistance and promised that Ukrainian soldiers would make good use of the vehicles”, an official statement noted.
But the American shipments contained relatively mundane items like fuel pumps, water tanks, generators and tents, a Pentagon spokesperson explained in an email. Washington even sent $3 million worth of combat rations – so-called “Meal, Ready-to-Eat“, or MREs – to help Kiev’s embattled troops.
Russia’s support to separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk has no doubt included many of the same sorts of gear. But the Kremlin has not shied away from sending light and heavy weapons in the aid packages to rebel groups on top of this basic equipment.
“We have seen month on month more lethal weaponry of a higher caliber, of more sophistication, poured into Ukraine […] by the separatist Russian allies”, Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said at the 2015 Brussels Forum in March. “The kinds of equipment that the Ukrainian forces are confronting are much more sophisticated than what they have”.
This fact hasn’t been lost of Ukrainian officials or American lawmakers. Poroshenko has argued for deadly weapons to go along with the food and bedrolls. American politicians such as Arizona Senator John McCain are eager to arm Kiev’s troops.
“One cannot win the war with blankets”, Poroshenko told a joint session of the U.S. Congress during an emotional plea for more aid in September 2014. Five month later, McCain grieved. “I’m ashamed of my country, I’m ashamed of my president and I’m ashamed of myself that I haven’t done more to help these people,” McCain said on CBS’ Face the Nation five months later.
Congress and the White House are still sparring over whether to supply weapons and ammunition to Ukrainian forces. Obama’s main concession has been to send troops to train Kiev’s soldiers how to use their new American equipment and existing arsenal more effectively.
These shared practice sessions have been small. Right now, some 300 U.S. Army paratroopers are training members of the Ukrainian National Guard at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in Yavoriv. This facility is less than 20 miles down the highway from the Polish border – far from the fighting.
By the end of their six months stint, nicknamed Fearless Guardian, the Army soldiers will train a paltry contingent of around 900 guardsmen. The Pentagon hopes the next run of exercises will be larger. “The second phase of Fearless Guardian will train up to five battalions of Ministry of Defense personnel”, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Army’s headquarters in Europe wrote in an email. “Planning for Fearless Guardian II is currently ongoing, but it will be very similar to the training currently being provided to the National Guard”.
Unlike the thousands of Russian infantry, tankers and Spetznaz commando troops the Pentagon estimates are in Ukraine, these advisers are the only American troops deployed to the country outside of military staff at the U.S. embassy in Kiev. Other training programs are just business as usual. In July, another 300 troops from the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team joined their comrades already in Ukraine for the Rapid Trident exercise. Since 1995, the Army’s European headquarters has run this event sometime between the end of summer and beginning of fall. This year, nearly 2,000 troops from almost 20 nations – including non-NATO members Moldova and Georgia – descended on the training center in Yavoriv.
Out in the Black Sea, the U.S. Navy finished up its own yearly Ukrainian training session in Odessa on September 12. The sailing branch started holding these exercises 14 years ago as a way to get friendly naval forces to practice together. This year, sailors from the 11 participating nations launched fake raids and other mock operations on land, as well as testing out their skills on the waves. But the Navy’s European command doesn’t have any personnel permanently stationed in the country.
American commandos have been at the country at least once. Between November and December 2014, the special operations headquarters for the region sent a small team to teach first aid and other “primary point” medical techniques to Ukrainian troops.
Other cooperation has been even more muted. Two months after Moscow’s invasion of Crimea, Washington and Kiev formed a joint commission to discuss the eastern European country’s defense strategy. Now including representative from the Canada, Lithuania and the United Kingdom, the group also mentors Ukrainian officials, the Pentagon public affairs official added.
With no plans to directly aid Kiev’s air arm, the U.S. Air Force’s top headquarters for the region told us that it has no personnel working in Ukraine at this time. All of this is a far cry from the Kremlin’s direct involvement in the crisis.
In reality, the Pentagon wouldn’t have to do very much if it decided for some reason to cede to Russia’s demands to follow the exact wording of the Minsk II agreement. A contingent of 300 soldiers and American diplomats handing out Humvees are hardly “entrenched” in the country or its conflict. Still, that’s not likely to happen. McCain and other members of congress have included specific provisions to help arm Ukrainian troops in the proposed defense budget for the next fiscal cycle.
“Much of the debate in Washington has been focused on whether we should provide additional defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine”, Vice President Joe Biden said in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. in May. “That’s a debate worth having and continues”. Ukraine has indicated it still wants to join NATO, too. The alliance generally doesn’t rush to admit countries – like Georgia – actively fighting wars with nuclear armed regional powers though.
So while American troops and arms have only a small impact on the fighting now, maybe Washington’s forces will be more active in the coming year.