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Want to understand Ukraine? We go behind the headlines to reveal how U.S. military aid thwarts Russian aggression

While impeachment proceedings cast a spotlight on Ukraine, Russian tanks and artillery still occupy the country’s eastern flank. The U.S. has responded with soft power, including military aid

SHARE Want to understand Ukraine? We go behind the headlines to reveal how U.S. military aid thwarts Russian aggression
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A Ukrainian soldier gets ready at position near the frontline with Russia-backed separatists in Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. Russia and Ukraine are still reeling from their first overt military confrontation since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, a clash Sunday in the Kerch Strait near Russia-occupied Crimea where Russian border guards fired on three Ukrainian ships, seizing them and their 24 crewmembers.

Evgeniy Maloletka, Associated Press

Editor’s note: Dodge Billingsley is an independent scholar, director of Combat Films & Research and a military analyst with more than 25 years’ experience covering conflict and global hot spots. He is based in Salt Lake City and offers this perspective on Ukraine today for the Deseret News.

SALT LAKE CITY—The U.S. has a Russia dilemma. How can it tamp down Russian aggression without engaging its military? That question will continue to play out in the halls of Congress and on the plains of eastern Ukraine.

While impeachment proceedings cast a spotlight on Ukraine, Russian tanks and artillery occupy the country’s eastern flank. More than 3,000 civilians have been killed and 7,000 woundedsince Russian forces invaded in 2014, according to the UN Human Rights Council. About 1.6 million people have fled, becoming refugees within their own country.

The war is one expression of President Vladimir Putin’s ambition to rebuild a Russian empire, reviving its Soviet-era sphere of influence. In recent years, Russia has been suspected in cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns targeting the U.S and its NATO allies, the assassination of Russian defectors in the U.K, and a coup attempt to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO. Russia has become an active antagonist, challenging the U.S. on the world stage, even outflanking U.S. strategy in Syria.

The U.S. has responded with what can be termed soft power. Sanctions target Russia, Putin and his inner circle — and their wealth. Military aid and training missions signal U.S. backing for Russia’s neighbors, like Poland, Romania, and the Republic of Georgia, which can act as a deterrent. Ukraine is both an ally in this simmering conflict — as it has been in Iraq and Afghanistan — and a battleground where the U.S. and Russia compete for influence.

Russia’s invasion is still an existential threat to Ukraine, which is about the size of Texas, with a population similar to California’s. The former Soviet republic has growing ties to the West including an association agreement with the European Union, but shares a 1,426-mile border with Russia, ending at the Black Sea. Ukraine has fought Russia to a standstill, thanks in part to U.S. backing and $1.5 billion in military aid — including specialized weapons that undermine the strengths of Russia’s superior firepower.

For Ukrainian troops on the front lines, U.S. military aid represents more than a check. The funding, rolled out in stages since 2014, is typically earmarked for specific supplies and material, including advanced weapons like counter-battery radar, which helps to neutralize artillery and mortars, and the Javelin anti-tank missile system.

I’ve seen these weapons in action when I was embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq. Russia relies heavily on artillery and tanks — which I’ve seen navigate mobility courses at international arms expos. Russia has one of the world’s most formidable militaries, hardened by years of action in Chechnya, but U.S. weapons give Ukrainian soldiers a fighting chance.

These weapons have helped to balance power in the region to the point that at least a temporary peace looks possible — so long as the U.S. continues to tip the scales in Ukraine’s favor and Russia isn’t expected to give up any territorial gains.

What is really happening in Ukraine and why does it matter to U.S. national security? How does U.S. military aid affect the situation on the ground? What does the future hold?

A long, quiet strategic stand-off

Ukraine’s importance to the U.S. may be primarily symbolic — and that’s no small thing. Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy and its role on the international stage have been built around its reputation as a defender of democracy. As such, the U.S. has engaged in a series of alliances across the globe to fend off potential anti-democratic threats. If that reputation is tarnished, those alliances could weaken or crumble, as allies lose trust in the U.S. as a partner.

For decades, the U.S. built that reputation by opposing the Soviet Union in proxy wars, arms races, intelligence contests, and covert operations. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the U.S. hurried in to build relationships with former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia to expand its influence in eastern Europe, control the spread of Soviet-era nuclear weapons, and stave off any future resurgence of Russian ambition.

The U.S. quickly attached itself to Ukraine when the latter declared its independence in August 1991. A few years later, in 1994, the U.S. joined leaders of Ukraine, Britain, and Russia, signing a memorandum admitting Ukraine to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The pact pledged that none of the participants would ever attack Ukraine if the country gave up its nuclear arsenal.

Fast-forward 25 years and Russia has ignored that treaty and revived its imperial aspirations, stoking fears of a new Cold War. The U.S. hasn’t exactly revived the policy of containment toward Russia as it was defined after World War II, but the objectives are similar. The U.S. does not want to see the countries to the south and west of Russia revert to satellite states for Moscow.

Ukraine’s identity crisis

I flew to Kiev in December 2004 to interview Ukrainian volunteers who had traveled to fight against Russian forces in previous conflicts in Abkhazia and Chechnya. It was bitter cold and yet Independence Square and the main avenue were completely cut off by thousands of people brandishing orange flags and banners – day and night, into the spring of 2005. This was known as the Orange Revolution.

Protesters were responding to allegations of government corruption, the poisoning of a pro-western presidential candidate, and a stolen election that saw pro-Russian candidate Victor Yanukovych declared the winner, only to have his victory overturned. Somewhat forgotten, these events were early salvos in a conflict that was not quite evident at the time but had been brewing since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the heart of the unrest was a contest for the direction of Ukraine itself. Ukraine is closely tied to Russia, both historically and ethnically. Many Russians consider Ukraine an intrinsic part of their country – and Ukraine has been a Russian territory during certain periods. But many Ukrainians would not agree. 

It was an old question, but now that identity crisis would have a broader impact. Thirteen years after independence, Ukraine was politically up for grabs. Would it reach westward toward democracy, to join the European Union and possibly NATO? Or would it gravitate back to Moscow’s orbit?

U.S. presidents since Reagan have watched the situation closely, offering political and economic support to Ukraine. But Moscow still considers Ukraine part of its rightful sphere of influence and has never stopped seeking to undermine Ukraine’s westward aspirations.

A Crimean dagger

In 2010, Yanukovych was again elected president of Ukraine, but by 2013 his administration began to unravel — as did the country itself. That year, he rejected an association agreement with the E.U., instead seeking closer ties with Russia and accepting a financial bailout from Moscow. It was one of many decisions deemed pro-Russian.

In the spirit of the Orange Revolution, pro-west Ukrainians flooded Independence Square. This time Yanukovych called it a “coup” and his government met them with force. As many as 70 people were killed in clashes with security forces. Still, the protests did not abate and in February 2014 Yanukovych fled to Crimea.

The Ukrainian government shut down the elite police unit blamed for the killings and eliminated Russian as the country’s second official language (although the ban was eventually overturned), angering many in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, according to BBC News.

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A pro-Russian soldier is back dropped by Russia’s flag while manning a machine-gun outside an Ukrainian military base in Perevalne, Ukraine, Saturday, March 15, 2014. Tensions are high in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, where a referendum is to be held Sunday on whether to split off from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia.

Vadim Ghirda, Associated Press

Within days, pro-Russian forces — including Russian soldiers and a pro-Putin biker gang (one can’t make this stuff up) — seized the Crimean peninsula in a stealth operation that was over before much of the world or even Ukraine knew it was happening. The efficiency of the operation suggests it was planned before Yanukovych ever left Kiev.

Soon after, anti-Ukrainian demonstrations started taking place in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Protests led to violence and unrest soon led to civil war, with casualties on both sides. By late summer, Ukrainian government forces seemed to have the upper hand.

That changed in August 2014, when Russian regular military units crossed the border into Ukraine, joining pro-Russian groups in a counter-attack that forced Ukrainian forces to retreat in many places along the otherwise stable front line. 

Within weeks, the Obama administration outlined an aid package worth $291 million to support Ukraine against Russian aggression. At first the U.S. provided mostly non-lethal aid: training, medical and support materials and equipment.

Now, five years later, U.S. military aid to Ukraine totals about $1.5 billion, including a variety of very lethal tactical weapon systems designed to blunt and disrupt the Russian-sponsored advance and occupation.

Big brother, little brother

Ukraine’s military is no pushover. The country has a robust defense industry, inherited from the Soviet Union. Ukraine is a net arms exporter. In fact, Russia and Ukraine field much of the same equipment, because they share a Soviet legacy. Still, Russia has significant advantages in resources and experience on the battlefield.

In 1991, the disintegration of the Soviet Union left its arms industry in disarray. For decades its factories had produced weapons for the Soviet military and for client states and proxy wars around the world. Now Russia and Ukraine held the factories, but needed cash more than tanks. Ever since, they have competed to sell similar assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, mortars and tanks to countries all over Asia, the Middle East and Africa. 

Both countries showcase weapons at arms shows like the International Defense Exposition in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The star attractions are the tanks and other armored vehicles that compete on the mobility course. Though they don’t face off head-to-head, each crew vies to show their tank can better navigate the artificial hills and water features, hoping to close deals with oil-rich Middle Eastern regimes.

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Ukrainian servicemen attend a military training in Chernihiv region, Ukraine, Wednesday, Nov, 28, 2018. Russia and Ukraine traded blame after Russian border guards on Sunday opened fire on three Ukrainian navy vessels and eventually seized them and their crews. The incident put the two countries on war footing and raised international concern.

Mykola Lazarenko, Associated Press

Russia has a decided advantage due to its size, superior defense industry, and experience. Russian forces have honed their skills in combat since 1994, fighting separatists and jihadists in Chechnya, and seeing action in Azerbaijan, the Republic of Georgia, Syria, Libya, and across Africa.

Wherever the Russian army goes, it relies on overwhelming numbers and heavy weapons — tanks and artillery — to crush its enemies.

Weapons to level the field

Chechen volunteers now fighting with Ukraine know that better than anybody. During their separatist struggle (1994-2009), the Chechens lacked specialized hardware, so they tried to neutralize the advantage by luring Russian tanks into city streets — where they could attack them at close range and from top floors above and sewers below — or into the tight ravines and narrow twisting roads of the mountains. But out on the open plains, Russian armor inflicted staggering losses on the Chechens. Eastern Ukraine is a similar terrain, ideal for tank warfare, and that gives Russia the upper hand.

Enter U.S. defense technology: AN/TPQ-36 counter- battery radar and FGM-148 Javelin anti- tank missile systems — both part of the military aid package to Ukraine, both designed to undermine Russian strengths.

Counter-battery radar is a defensive weapon, designed to protect a fixed position. When an artillery or mortar round is fired, this system identifies the point of origin and immediately fires back. It is believed to have drastically slowed Russian shelling and mortar fire as crews know they will suffer direct hits themselves soon after they launch a strike.

The Javelin is a shoulder-fired anti-tank missile system that lets soldiers fight armor. Typically operated by a two-person crew, it really only takes one person to fire. Once the Javelin is locked onto the target and launched, the crew can move to cover while the missile flies on a rising trajectory, going almost vertical before it turns and drops straight down to strike the vulnerable top of the tank. This weapon is more versatile, and can be used by troops that are advancing, retreating or holding the line.

Tactically speaking, these systems are both potential game changers.     

What’s next and what lessons can be learned?

Last month, Russia returned three Ukrainian military boats that were seized last year as they passed through the Kerch Strait, a narrow waterway between Crimea and mainland Russia. The crews were also recently released, part of a prisoner exchange. It looked like a sign of de-escalation as the two countries prepared for peace talks in Paris, though Ukrainian officials claim the boats were stripped clean of essential systems and are effectively unusable. 

It’s too strong to say that U.S. military aid can buy peace — even if talks lead to a truce that takes hold on the ground — but it seems to be at least partially responsible, along with the persuasive power of U.S. backing, for the stalemate at the front.

U.S. weapons like the Javelin, counter battery radar, sniper rifles and more have given Ukraine a way to deter Russian advances and helping to stabilize a designated front line roughly 400 miles in length.

The success of this strategy could provide a tactical blueprint for other countries on Russia’s periphery that fear a militarily aggressive Kremlin determined to regain the lost territories of the former Soviet Union.  

Military aid lets the U.S. stand with its allies without putting American boots on the ground or risking American lives. However, there are risks; for example, transferring tactical weapons to countries at war inherently increases the threat of a wider war. But the U.S. risks losing the faith of its allies if it fails to deliver on such commitments.

Meanwhile, relations between the U.S. and Russia have deteriorated over the past decade. The two countries now face off in quasi proxy wars from Syria to Venezuela. What happens next in Ukraine may well indicate where this relationship is going.