What if Obama Had Given Arms to Ukraine Years Ago?: Soon after Russia launched its unprovoked and unwarranted invasion of Ukraine, there was no shortage of finger-pointing regarding whether military aid should have been sent sooner. In March, former President Donald Trump told his supporters, “I was the one that sent the Javelins, not Obama. Obama sent blankets.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence doubled down during an interview on the Fox News Channel days later, where he stated, “The Obama-Biden administration only sent them meals and blankets.”
The details were a bit distorted, however.
What Did Obama Give Ukraine?
It is true that the Obama administration had refused to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons in 2014 to fight Russia-back separatists; yet, the White House did offer more than blankets.
Moreover, in March 2015, the Obama administration did provide more than $120 million in security aid for Ukraine and promised $75 million worth of equipment, which included counter-mortar radars, night vision devices, and medical supplies.
In fact, since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations all held back or at least delayed military aid. That has raised the question of whether a better armed and prepared Ukraine could have been a deterrent to a Russian invasion.
“We don’t know if that would have deterred [Putin]. I think Putin felt that no matter how well armed Ukraine was, that he would be able to roll over Ukraine,” Jim Townsend, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, told CBC in March.
“We should have, though, we should have provided lethal weapons. And earlier,” Townsend added. “And then the odds would have been higher than they could have been deterred.”
Reason for the Delay
U.S. support only came after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, and the Obama administration ultimately committed more than $600 million in security aid to Ukraine. Additionally, during the final year of the Obama administration, the U.S. established the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), which provided U.S. military equipment and training to help defend Ukraine against Russian aggression. From 2016 to 2019, Congress appropriated $850 million for this initiative.
It could be described as a drop in the bucket compared to what has been sent since Russia invaded in February. As of right now, the United States has sent tens of billions of dollars to Ukraine. It is doubtful that the Obama administration – or the Trump administration, for that matter – could have possibly been able to convince lawmakers in D.C. to offer such support before an actual war.
The U.S. rushed arms to Ukraine, even as past efforts had been stalled for years. There was more than politics at play, however.
Former CIA Director John Brennan told NBC News in November 2019 that there were legitimate fears that any advanced arms that were provided could have found their way to Moscow.
“The Russians had deep penetrations of Ukrainian intelligence, security, and military forces in the aftermath” of that country’s 2014 revolution that overthrew a pro-Russian government Brennan explained, adding, “and it took time to rid those forces of Russian moles, agents, and spies. That was the purpose of my visit to Kiev less than eight weeks after the Revolution of Dignity.”
The Obama administration, and the Trump administration afterward, were left with a careful balancing act. Even when the White House wanted to offer help, it had to tread carefully not to provoke Russia, while the fear of the Kremlin gaining access to U.S. military technology remained.
While there remains the argument that Ukraine should have never joined NATO’s enhanced opportunity partner interoperability program in June 2020 – or even sought membership in the international alliance – another point could be made. Ukraine shouldn’t have given up its nuclear weapons as part of the Budapest Memorandum. Had it remained a nuclear power, Russia’s invasion likely would have never occurred. The nukes would have been a greater deterrent than ten thousand U.S. FGM-148 Javelins.
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A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.