The Pentagon is doing its damnedest to avoid being dragged into the Ukraine mess
Vice President Mike Pence said a $250 million security assistance package to Ukraine was withheld due to fears of corruption, even though a top DoD official had certified that Ukraine had taken "substantial actions" to tackle corruption.
A $250 million military assistance package to Ukraine was the spring that set in motion the possible impeachment of the president of the United States – and the Defense Department wants to be as far away from this quagmire as humanly possible.
“As I said on many occasions, I'm trying to keep DoD out of politics, and obviously that's all of the news today, and so we'll address that at the right point in time,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Sept. 25 when a reporter asked him if the White House's decision to temporarily withhold military aid to Ukraine had harmed national security.
But as much as the Pentagon wishes it could be on a different planet right now, the Defense Department is trapped on the ground floor of a two-story outhouse from which there is no escape.
(Before we go any further, your humble friend and narrator wants to make clear this column is not a political diatribe: If you want to hear someone spout off his or her opinion about whether President Donald Trump should be impeached, feel free to take a long draught from the keg of cable news punditry. The 24/7 news cycle is as poisonous to political discourse as Gonorrhea is to intercourse and should be avoided at all costs)
This human centipede of a saga began in early 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine and began providing separatists in the eastern part of the country with both weapons and covert support from Russian troops. Since then, the United States has provided Ukraine with $1.5 billion in security assistance under the auspices of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which was part of the Fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. (Please note: The country is no longer called “the Ukraine.”)
In June, the Defense Department announced it was providing Ukraine with a $250 million security assistance package to help build its security forces, which included sniper rifles, rocket propelled grenade launchers, counter-artillery radars, electronic warfare detection equipment, and night vision goggles. Separately, the State Department approved the sale of 210 Javelin missiles and 37 Javelin Command Launch Units to Ukraine in March 2018.
But the White House reportedly froze military aid to Ukraine from July through mid-September, a move Vice President Mike Pence defended by saying the U.S. government had “great concerns about issues of corruption” in the country and that Trump wanted to make sure that any aid paid for by American taxpayers would “contribute to security and stability in Ukraine.”
However, a top Pentagon official sent Congress a letter in May in which he “certified that the Government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption,” National Public Radio's David Welna first reported. The letter, by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood, was a prerequisite imposed by Congress before the Defense Department could provide training and equipment to Ukraine.
The plot thickened on Wednesday, when the White House released a memorandum detailing a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which Democrats claim supports allegations made in a whistleblower complaint that alleged Trump had asked Zelensky to interfere with the 2020 presidential election
During the phone call, Zelensky told Trump that Ukraine was eager to buy more Javelin missiles from the United States, after which Trump asked Zelensky to work with the U.S. attorney general to investigate a cybersecurity company that looked into Russia's hacking of Democrats in 2016 as well as Hunter Biden, son of his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
As Republicans and Democrats debate whether Trump offered Zelensky a quid pro quo for Javelin missiles, the Pentagon will be an uncomfortable microscope. Its security assistance to Ukraine is this scandal's equivalent of Monica Lewinsky's dress – tangentially related yet forever stained.
The U.S. military's relationship with Ukrainian security forces is particularly important because, as defense officials obsessively reminds us, the age of great power competition has returned and the Ukrainian military has a lot of experience fighting the Russians.
On Friday, Esper told reporters the Defense Department will provide Congress and anyone else interested whatever information they request about the security assistance package to Ukraine that is the source of the current controversy.
“At this point most of the money is out the door,” Esper said before meeting his Norwegian counterpart. “And at no time or at any time has any delay in this money – this funding – affected U.S. national security.”
Esper can say whatever he wants, but national security and politics are now living in sin — and the Pentagon is holding its breath as it awaits the unholy love child that's about to arrive.
Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 14 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.