Ukraine, Trump, and Javelin Missiles

Yesterday the New York Times reported that in early April Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, ordered his chief federal prosecutor to halt four anticorruption investigations involving Ukrainians connected to Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman and a central figure in Robert Mueller’s investigations here in the United States.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Ukraine announced on April 30 that it had received 210 Javelin antitank missiles, purchased from the United States to bolster its fight against Russian proxies in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Though the State Department initially approved the sale in December and Pentagon gave its blessing in March, Trump himself was reluctant to arm Ukraine given the potential effect on the U.S. relationship with Russia.

The burning question is whether anyone in the Trump administration suggested this course of action to Ukraine. Ukraine, of course, is free to pursue whatever policies it deems necessary to defend itself from encroachments by Russia. But to use arms sales to interfere with the Mueller investigation would represent obstruction of justice on a truly epic scale.

To be sure, Ukraine already had plenty of motivation to help the Trump administration. If Ukraine shuttered the investigations to curry Trump’s favor, it was only one of several efforts designed to garner American support. Concerned that Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin would translate into anti-Ukraine policies, Ukraine has gone out of its way to butter up Trump since he took office. Ukraine has promised U.S. construction firms contracts for future infrastructure projects in Donbass, brokered a $80 million coal deal with the U.S., signed a $1 billion deal with GE Transportation for new locomotives, and hired former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour to help Ukraine lobby the Trump administration.

But even if this has nothing to do with the Mueller investigation, the sale of Javelin missiles to Ukraine reflects both poor judgment on the part of the Trump administration and a longstanding neglect of the potential negative consequences of American arms sales.

Arming Ukraine makes little strategic sense. A couple hundred antitank missiles will not alter the military balance between Ukraine and Russia in Donbas in any meaningful way. Russia can quickly move additional forces and equipment to the region at will. The bigger danger is that arming Ukraine will in fact prompt Russia to do just that, thereby risking an intensification of the conflict and potentially leading to more casualties than the 10,000 already suffered. It is clear, in fact, that this is exactly how Russia sees things. In December after the State Department approved the sale, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, “The United States is, in fact, encouraging the resumption of large-scale bloodshed in Donbass, where the situation is already on the edge due to continuing shelling from the Kiev-controlled side…Washington, in fact, becomes an accomplice in the killing of people.”

Arming Ukraine also raises the political stakes and risks turning Ukraine into a test of the president’s foreign policy effectiveness, increasing the likelihood of the United States getting entangled more deeply in the conflict. It seems clear that encouraging greater U.S. involvement is a key element of Ukraine’s strategy. Major General Volodymyr Havrylov, Ukraine’s defense attaché to the U.S., told a reporter that the missiles were “a political symbol that allows others to understand that Ukrainian security is important to the U.S.” The risk of entanglement is not trivial given the presence of powerful advocates for doing more in the U.S. Congress. Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved of the sale back in December, telling the press that “This decision was supported by Congress in legislation that became law three years ago and reflects our country’s longstanding commitment to Ukraine in the face of ongoing Russian aggression.”

More broadly, the dangers generated by U.S. arms sales go well beyond Ukraine. Ukraine is just one of many risky customers to whom the United States has sold advanced weapons over the past fifteen years. In pursuit of short-term foreign policy influence and economic gains, the United States has turned a blind eye to what happens after the deals are done. Among the list of questionable clients are countries like Saudi Arabia, which has used American weapons in its disastrous intervention in Yemen; Iraq, whose army managed to provide the Islamic State with three army divisions’ worth of American tanks, armored vehicles, and infantry weapons; and Nigeria, whose human rights record, internal conflicts, and overall state fragility call into serious question whether it will use its latest purchase of Super Tucano attack aircraft in a responsible manner.

Time will tell if the smoke surrounding the sale of Javelin missiles to Ukraine stems from collusion to obstruct the Mueller investigation or simply misguided foreign policy making. Either way, arming Ukraine reflects a reckless approach to the use of arms sales that the Trump administration seems all too eager to embrace.