How successive U.S. administrations resisted arming Ukraine

Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations in the U.S. have all, to some degree, delayed or balked at sending lethal aid to Ukraine — raising questions about whether a better armed Ukraine could have provided a deterrent to a Russian invasion.

Ukraine pleaded with U.S. for lethal weapons since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014

Ukrainian servicemen load Javelin anti-tank missiles, delivered as part of security assistance from the U.S., into military trucks at the Boryspil airport, outside Kyiv, last month. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

Earlier this week, the United States authorized up to $350 million US for immediate support to Ukraine's defence, which, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, would bring the total U.S. security assistance committed over the past year to more than $1 billion.

Yet since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have all, to some degree, delayed or balked at sending lethal aid to Ukraine — raising questions about whether a better armed Ukraine could have provided a deterrent to a Russian invasion.

"We don't know if that would have deterred" Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine on Feb. 24. "I think Putin felt that no matter how well armed Ukraine was, that he would be able to roll over Ukraine," said Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defence for European and NATO policy.

"We should have, though, we should have provided lethal weapons. And earlier. I think [Ukraine] would have had a better chance of surviving than they are now, right? And then the odds would have been higher that they could have been deterred."

Simon Miles, an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and an expert on Russia, agreed that the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations should have done more to build up Ukraine's defensive capabilities.

"That being said, it is not clear to me that that would have dissuaded what is happening right now."

In 2014, during Ukraine's battle to regain control of the Crimean Peninsula seized by Russia, then-Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko pleaded with Washington for more lethal military assistance, including Javelin anti-tank missiles.

However, despite bipartisan support from U.S. lawmakers to send lethal aid, the Obama administration would only commit to non-lethal support, which included equipment such as body armour, night goggles and helmets.

Obama resisted sending lethal support

Then-president Barack Obama, while providing millions of dollars in aid, resisted sending lethal support, fearing that such a military buildup might provoke Putin to strike.

A 2015 joint report by the Brooking Institution, the Atlantic Council and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs urged the West to bolster deterrence in Ukraine "by raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive."

Former U.S. president Barack Obama resisted sending lethal support to Ukraine, fearing that such a military buildup might provoke Russian President Vladmir Putin to strike. (Rick Bowmer/The Associated Press)

That would require providing direct military assistance so that Ukraine is better able to defend itself, the report stated. While it called on NATO members to be part of that strategy, it also said the U.S. government needed to provide Ukraine with $3 billion in military assistance over the next three years.

"Obviously it's difficult to give them enough arms right now, but I think it would have made a difference," said Gen. Charles Wald, a former deputy commander of the United States European Command and one of the authors of the report.

"And who knows, it might have even deterred Putin.... So I think there was a mistake made by not increasing the defensive armament capability and other things for the Ukrainians at that time."

Townsend, who's now a senior adviser with a number of security think-tanks, said he believes there was too much concern at the time about provoking Putin and that the Russian president may have viewed that as a sign of weakness.

Miles agreed that there certainly was a risk that a military buildup could prompt a response from Putin.

"You also have the risk that a very vulnerable Ukraine — with a very powerful neighbour with a track record of preying on its neighbours — Is very susceptible to threats and coercion and violence from that neighbour," he said. "So the risk cuts both ways."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, left, meets with then-U.S. president Donald Trump in New York during the United Nations General Assembly, in September 2019. Earlier that year, Trump ordered a freeze on a $400-million package of military assistance to Ukraine that had been approved by Congress. (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Yet in 2018, with Donald Trump as president, the U.S. reversed course and agreed to provide Ukraine with $47 million worth of lethal weapons, which included 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles and 37 launchers.

According to Catherine Croft, who served as Ukraine director at the U.S. National Security Council, Trump had viewed Ukraine as a corrupt country and believed it should pay for the weapons itself, Foreign Policy magazine reported in 2019.

As well, a condition was placed on the sale of the Javelin anti-tank missiles: They could only be stored in western Ukraine, away from the conflict, to be used as a deterrent.

Trump orders freeze

Then, in 2019, Trump ordered a freeze on a $400-million package of military assistance to Ukraine that had been approved by Congress. The freeze came days before Trump's phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, where he pressured the Ukrainian leader to investigate Joe Biden, a presidential front-runner at the time, and his son Hunter Biden. It was this request that led to Trump's first impeachment.

The aid, though, was released on Sept. 11, only after a whistleblower's complaint about Trump's pressure on Ukraine had surfaced and a few days after Democrats in Congress opened the investigation.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his state of the union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. In early December, 22 lawmakers wrote a bipartisan letter to Biden, urging him to immediately provide the military aid Ukraine had requested. (Jim Lo Scalzo/The Associated Press)

As for the current Biden administration, it, too, has been subject to bipartisan criticism for dragging its heels on military aid to Ukraine. In early December, 22 House lawmakers wrote a bipartisan letter to Biden, urging him to immediately provide the military aid requested by Ukraine — including Stinger and Javelin missiles, drones, electronic jamming gear, radars, ammunition and medical supplies.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Alexander Vindman, the former director for European Affairs for the U.S. National Security council, criticized the administration for refusing to provide advanced weapon systems to Ukraine, such as Patriot anti-aircraft missiles, because it had determined that Ukraine's armed forces were not sophisticated enough to handle them.

"Although Ukraine would have struggled to realize the full potential of these systems, they could nonetheless have affected Russia's calculus for military operations," Vindman wrote.

'A serious problem'

However, Mariya Omelicheva, a professor of national security strategy at the Washington-based National War College, noted that Ukraine's ability to "absorb" such systems "was a serious problem."

She said very expensive equipment has been supplied that is just standing idle because there aren't enough military personnel who are trained to operate it.

Experts have mixed opinions on the extent to which a better armed Ukraine would have deterred Putin from invading the country. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

But maintaining the equipment, being able to order the proper parts and use the parts for repairs are also required, Omelicheva said, adding that the whole logistical supply chain procurement was nonexistent in Ukraine and had to essentially be built from scratch.

"So it's not just simply training the military in using [it] ... but, you know, also be able to maintain and repair," she said.

Omelicheva said while it was possible that the delivery of more lethal aid to Ukraine could have delayed the invasion or raised the cost of an invasion, it could still have failed to deter Russia — with Putin more driven now by ideology and the belief that Ukraine is not a nation and that Russia's destiny is tied into the unity of Ukraine.

"When ideology becomes the driving force and an authoritarian leader is kind of cornered ... short of a nuclear deterrent, I don't think anything would have deterred Russia from invading Ukraine," she said.


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press