The Pentagon is doing its damnedest to avoid being dragged into the Ukraine mess

Pentagon Run-Down
Poland Wants Fort Trump

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 schogol@taskandpurpose.com or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.
A UH-60 Black Hawk departs from The Rock while conducting Medevac 101 training with members of the 386th Expeditionary Medical Group, Feb. 16, 2019. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

A Minnesota Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter with three Guardsmen aboard crashed south of St. Cloud on Thursday, said National Guard spokeswoman Army Master Sgt. Blair Heusdens.

At this time, the National Guard is not releasing any information about the status of the three people aboard the helicopter, Heusdens told Task & Purpose on Thursday.

Read More Show Less

The Pentagon's latest attempt to twist itself in knots to deny that it is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East has a big caveat.

Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said there are no plans to send that many troops to the region "at this time."

Farah's statement does not rule out the possibility that the Defense Department could initially announce a smaller deployment to the region and subsequently announce that more troops are headed downrange.

Read More Show Less

The Navy could send a second aircraft carrier to the Middle East if President Donald Trump orders a surge of forces to the region, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday said on Thursday.

Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef of the Wall Street Journal first reported the United States is considering sending up to 14,000 troops to the Middle East to deter Iran from attacking U.S. forces and regional allies. The surge forces could include several ships.

Read More Show Less

I didn't think a movie about World War I would, or even could, remind me of Afghanistan.

Somehow 1917 did, and that's probably the highest praise I can give Sam Mendes' newest war drama: It took a century-old conflict and made it relatable.

Read More Show Less

An internal investigation spurred by a nude photo scandal shows just how deep sexism runs in the Marine Corps

"I will still have to work harder to get the perception away from peers and seniors that women can't do the job."

news
(U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Some years ago, a 20-year-old female Marine, a military police officer, was working at a guard shack screening service members and civilians before they entered the base. As a lance corporal, she was new to the job and the duty station, her first in the Marine Corps.

At some point during her shift, a male sergeant on duty drove up. Get in the car, he said, the platoon sergeant needs to see you. She opened the door and got in, believing she was headed to see the enlisted supervisor of her platoon.

Instead, the sergeant drove her to a dark, wooded area on base. It was deserted, no other Marines were around. "Hey, I want a blowjob," the sergeant told her.

"What am I supposed, what do you do as a lance corporal?" she would later recall. "I'm 20 years old ... I'm new at this. You're the only leadership I've ever known, and this is what happens."

She looked at him, then got out of the car and walked away. The sergeant drove up next to her and tried to play it off as a prank. "I'm just fucking with you," he said. "It's not a big deal."

It was one story among hundreds of others shared by Marines for a study initiated in July 2017 by the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL). Finalized in March 2018, the center's report was quietly published to its website in September 2019 with little fanfare.

The culture of the Marine Corps is ripe for analysis. A 2015 Rand Corporation study found that women felt far more isolated among men in the Corps, while the Pentagon's Office of People Analytics noted in 2018 that female Marines rated hostility toward them as "significantly higher" than their male counterparts.

But the center's report, Marines' Perspectives on Various Aspects of Marine Corps Organizational Culture, offers a proverbial wakeup call to leaders, particularly when paired alongside previous studies, since it was commissioned by the Marine Corps itself in the wake of a nude photo sharing scandal that rocked the service in 2017.

The scandal, researchers found, was merely a symptom of a much larger problem.

Read More Show Less