In 2014, when Russia made a quick lunge for Crimea, Ukraine wasn’t prepared.
Ukrainians who had no training were taking up arms, scrambling to beat back Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas soon after. And while the U.S. has provided military assistance to Ukraine in the meantime—and Ukraine’s military has bulked up—lawmakers warn that the Biden administration hasn’t done enough to provide the sort of assistance that would be needed to thwart another Russian attack.
Ukraine’s assistance packages have been hefty, for sure. The U.S. has provided over $2.5 billion in assistance to Ukraine since 2014. The Biden administration itself carved out $60 million worth of assistance earlier this year.
But the situation in Ukraine is not looking good. Russian troops are amassing at the border and threatening invasion. And, by some estimates, they could overtake Ukrainian forces in 30 to 45 minutes, according to Robert Lee, a Russia military analyst and Ph.D. candidate at King’s College London.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who just visited Ukraine last week to get a lay of the land firsthand, told The Daily Beast Ukraine is vulnerable to takeover.
“My readout from the ground is that it is a very serious situation. Russia is very much amassing its forces at the borders in a very offensive [way] with offensive capabilities,” Gallego said in an interview. “Ukraine itself is bogged down in the eastern front in the Donbas… with most of its fighting men there and is vulnerable to invasion.”
To make matters worse, Russia is building up troops all along Ukraine’s border in an attempt to disperse Ukrainian forces and weaken any potential defensive operations, Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksi Reznikov, told Politico in a recent interview.
“It doesn’t mean that we can’t help Ukraine become more resistant to that, but we have to move very fast,” Gallego said of the matchup. The situation could change, he said, if the White House and Pentagon were to step up their game and help provide lethal aid to Ukraine.
That sort of assistance would be needed immediately; Russia is showing signs that it’s not backing down, Department of Defense Press Secretary John Kirby said in a briefing this week.
“The Russian game plan is to try to take this as fast as possible with the least amount of resistance,” said Gallego, who was recently threatened by a Russian politician with kidnapping for his comments on Russia in recent days. “I think Russia is ready to go into Ukraine either now or at some point in the near future… in the next three months.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) is adamant that securing millions of dollars’ worth of military aid to Ukraine would be central to any attempt to properly deter Russia from invading Ukraine.
“Bolstering Ukraine’s military capabilities is our best defense against Russia’s provocative behavior at the border,” Shaheen told The Daily Beast. “There is bipartisan consensus in Congress on the need for the U.S. to support our democratic partners and provide the tools necessary to defend themselves from the Kremlin’s malign and destabilizing behavior.”
Just in the last several days Congress greenlighted an increase of aid packages that go to Ukraine annually from $250 million to $300 million in the latest defense authorization bill.
And Gallego told The Daily Beast he has plans to speak with the White House, the National Security Council, and the Pentagon about further assistance to Ukraine that might actually make a difference if Russia were to invade.
“We need to create deterrence,” Gallego said. “The way to do that is by giving more lethal aid, defensive lethal aid, to Ukraine that they don’t have right now and to encourage and train their capability to do resistance operations.”
Gallego—and a whole host of his colleagues in the House who penned a letter to Biden in recent days on the very subject—wants assistance packages to focus on javelins, stingers, drones, and missiles. Ukraine in particular needs help with its air defenses to better meet the Russian threat, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) told The Daily Beast.
“Although Ukraine has been provided over $3 billion in assistance from the U.S. and extensive training from our European allies, more needs to be done,” Portman said, adding that “the Biden administration should increase the pace and scope of our security assistance to Ukraine to counter threats from Russia, especially in the areas of lethal assistance that include anti-air and maritime domain weaponry.”
A National Security Council spokesperson told The Daily Beast the White House is assessing additional military packages for Ukraine on a continuous basis. In the last two months, the U.S. has delivered Javelin missiles, first aid kits, radios, electronics, medical equipment, engines, and generators, the spokesperson noted.
But in the absence of more help from the Biden administration, Ukrainian people may need to take up arms and fight a partisan war in the coming days, Ukraine’s Joint Operations Forces commander, General Oleksandr Pavlyuk, told Radio Liberty.
The Biden administration has provided foggy statements about what it will do for Ukraine to prevent a crisis, which is raising hairs in Ukraine.
“There are not sufficient military resources for repelling a full-scale attack by Russia if it begins without the support of Western forces,” Brigadier General Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of Ukrainian military intelligence, told The New York Times. “They need to decide, either we’re allies as they declare—and in that case allies help one another—or they need to say that this is not exactly the case.”
In recent days President Biden told reporters sending troops to Ukraine was “never on the table.” Biden went so far as to say that the U.S. would plan to send troops to the so-called Bucharest Nine (B9) countries—the eastern flank of NATO—if Russia were to actually pull the trigger and invade Ukraine. But he wouldn’t touch the issue of the United States providing troops earlier.
If Russia invades, “we will find it required that we’ll have to send more American and NATO troops into the eastern flank, the B9, all those NATO countries where we have a sacred obligation to defend them against any attack by Russia,” the president said.
The B9 countries include Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
In the meantime, Ukrainian military advisers are bucking the Biden administration’s delays on other assistance, noting they likely won’t withstand an initial assault if Russia were to take aim first at ammunition depots and troops in trenches. From Ukraine’s perspective, the time for military assistance is not after an invasion, but now.
“If the civilized world wants to avoid catastrophe—and this will be a catastrophe for everyone—we need military technical support now, not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow, not in a year. Now,” Budanov said.
Efforts to deter Russia with economic measures—which appears to be the primary option Biden dares to propose at this stage—don’t appear to be making much headway.
Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried bounced between Ukraine and Russia this week to get a better sense of where Putin’s head is at, and U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken demurred this week when asked on MSNBC if Russia has shown it has been paying any attention whatsoever to U.S. sanctions threats and warnings to back off Ukraine.
“We’ll see in the days and weeks ahead,” Blinken said.
Things don’t look to be moving in the right direction. Russia shared proposals with Donfried on how they think tensions could be addressed, but its suggestions—including that NATO deny Ukraine membership—have already been rejected by the U.S. and allies.
A senior administration official said in a call with reporters Friday that “there are some things in those documents that the Russians know will be unacceptable, and they know that… we remain gravely concerned with the large and unprovoked Russian buildup on Ukraine’s borders.”
But the wait-and-see method could spell even more headaches, Gallego said.
“Should this actually come to a full war we have to double down, triple down on what we’ve already given them” in terms of javelins and stingers, Gallego said. “We also should be ready to able to share as much intelligence as we can in terms of where Russian assets are for Ukraine to defend itself.”