World News

05.16.14

U.S. Waited Months to Send Ukraine Spare Tires

In early March, Ukraine’s military begged the U.S. for the simplest of gear to help them cope with an advancing Russia. Washington’s response was a long, slow pause.

Usually when foreign militaries ask the United States for equipment, it’s the kind of high-tech weaponry for which America is known: fighter jets, advanced radars, and missile systems. But for Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the list was more basic: boots, uniforms, body armor, and spare tires. And yet, for more than two months, these simple requests have gone unfulfilled.

The Daily Beast has obtained the original detailed request Ukraine’s armed forces made to the United States and NATO in the first days of March after the world watched Russian special operations forces in uniforms bearing no flag or insignia seize Crimea’s transportation and infrastructure hubs.

The list of requested materiel provides a window into a hollow and outmatched Ukrainian military. And the document shows why Kiev is losing the fight against the upstart civilian militias U.S. and Western leaders say are supported and paid by Russian intelligence officers and special operations forces.

Ukraine’s military lacks the logistical equipment, functioning vehicles and trained soldiers to support expeditions for long periods of time away from their military bases. As a result, Ukraine’s military has taken to raising funds online and relying on locals to provide everything from spare parts to hot meals

Vice President Joe Biden on April 22 said the United States would be sending Kiev communications equipment, bomb detection gear, and other technology to root out infiltrators. But he made no mention of the more rudimentary requests Ukraine's military leaders had asked for since early March. Standing beside Ukraine's prime minister, Biden said, “We will stand with you. It’s been inspiring to watch you and your fellow countrymen.”

The Obama administration, to its credit, has sent meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) and has committed to enhance military training that the U.S. provided before the crisis. In addition, the Obama administration has approved $18 million in military assistance, but has placed strict limitations on that funding. Defense Department spokesperson Eileen Lainez said that the U.S. Embassy in Kiev has, for now, “purchased and delivered fuel pumps, concertina wire, vehicle batteries, spare tires, binoculars, and communications gear to the Ukrainian Border Guards.”

But the Obama administration has also not shared with the public the full extent of the aid that Ukraine requested back in March. At an April 10 hearing, for example, Assistant Secretary of Defense of International Security Affairs Derek Chollet told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “The most urgent needs they have identified to us have been in the more non-lethal and humanitarian space, the MREs and the medical supplies in particular.”

“This request went in right after the Russians seized Crimea before the destabilization campaign in the east started. We could have put all that equipment on planes and sent it to Ukraine and have it delivered in a couple of weeks.”

Chollet’s remarks were not inaccurate, but they were also incomplete. The list of equipment requested from Kiev includes, for example, a request for 20,000 night vision goggles, 277 secure radios and 12,000 pieces of body armor and 2,000 Kevlar helmets.

“What they considered the most important part of the request was the body armor, night vision devices and secure digital radios,” said Philip Karber, a former strategy adviser to former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. “They are going up against highly trained Russian Spetznas forces and snipers who are equipped with those items. If you ask anyone who has served in combat they will tell you the Ukrainian forces will be half as effective as the far better equipped Russians.”

Karber is in a position to know. He and Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander, were invited this year to conduct an independent and bipartisan assessment of Ukraine’s military at the request of the government in Kiev. Karber provided The Daily Beast with the request document that he received from Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.

Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman, declined to go into detail about what Ukraine’s military has requested. “The review we’re undertaking with the State Department is ongoing,” she said. “Our focus continues to be on supporting Ukraine economically and diplomatically; as the President has said, we do not see a military solution to this crisis. Throughout the review, we’re looking at items with the intent that whatever is approved will stabilize the situation in Ukraine.”

Karber, however, is furious about how long it has taken the Pentagon to provide Ukraine with just the equipment it has requested. “This request went in right after the Russians seized Crimea before the destabilization campaign in the east started,” he said. “We could have put all that equipment on planes and sent it to Ukraine and have it delivered in a couple of weeks.”

As it turns out, the Obama administration decided against even flying the MREs into Ukraine and instead has transported them by trucks. On Wednesday, Republican Senator John McCain was incredulous about this decision. “You can’t fly in MREs with American aircraft, you have to lease trucks from Germany to bring MREs in, so you don’t provoke Vladimir. Whatever you do, you don’t want to provoke Vladimir,” he said in a mocking tone.

Even some Democrats are concerned about the slow pace of aid to Ukraine. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Daily Beast, “There is a middle ground between MREs and complicated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry that they don’t know how to operate.” Murphy said he supports stepping up non-lethal assistance to Ukraine and also enhancing the U.S. military’s longer-term training relationship with Ukraine.

Even some Democrats are concerned about the slow pace of aid to Ukraine. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Daily Beast, “There is a middle ground between MREs and complicated anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry that they don’t know how to operate.” Murphy said he supports stepping up non-lethal assistance to Ukraine and also enhancing the U.S. military’s longer-term training relationship with Ukraine.

For now, however, Ukraine’s military is in dire straits. Karber, who remains in touch with Ukraine’s commanders, said the country’s forward-deployed troops have yet to receive any of the promised assistance from the United States. “They have told me that the MREs and the sleeping bags are on the way,” he said.

The sorry state of Ukraine’s military has not deterred other citizens from trying to take back some of the cities that have fallen to separatists. The New York Times is now reporting that steel workers fanned out across the streets of Mariupol on Thursday to reclaim the city from pro-Kremlin militias. 

Karber said his assessment is that Ukraine “did not invest in the logistics, equipment, trucks and support units needed for long deployments away from the base.” He said he remembered in one of his deployments to the field with a tank battalion he watched as local visitors brought the soldiers hot meals on carts drawn by ponies.

All told, Karber interviewed more than 200 soldiers. In the last 10 days, he said, some of those troops whom he met have been killed in action in skirmishes in the east with highly trained Russian irregular units. “It’s now been two and a half months and those kids are being killed and they still don’t have those assets their government requested, that the kids were begging for.”   

-- with additional reporting by Josh Rogin