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Opinion Trump administration approves lethal arms sales to Ukraine

Ukrainian servicemen guard their position near a damaged house in Marinka, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, in 2015. (Evgeniy Maloletka/AP)

Correction: A previous version of this blog post incorrectly reported that the Trump administration had approved the first-ever commercial sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine. It stated that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had publicly supported arms sales to Ukraine; Mattis did not explicitly do so. This post has been updated.  

The Trump administration has approved the largest U.S. commercial sale of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine since 2014. The move was heavily supported by top Trump national security Cabinet officials and Congress but may complicate President Trump’s stated ambition to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Administration officials confirmed that the State Department this month approved a commercial license authorizing the export of Model M107A1 Sniper Systems, ammunition, and associated parts and accessories to Ukraine, a sale valued at $41.5 million. These weapons address a specific vulnerability of Ukrainian forces fighting a Russian-backed separatist movement in two eastern provinces. There has been no approval to export the heavier weapons the Ukrainian government is asking for, such as Javelin antitank missiles.

Congress authorized such sales in 2014 in the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, but the Obama administration never authorized large commercial or government sales, a move widely seen as a de facto decision not to provide lethal weapons to the Ukraine military. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who co-sponsored the law, praised the Trump administration’s move.

“I’m pleased the administration approved the sale of defensive lethal arms to Ukraine,” Corker told me. “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.”

A State Department spokesperson, speaking on background, said that although the United States has now licensed the commercial export of lethal weapons to Ukraine, the U.S. government has not sold or given weapons directly to Ukraine. There’s never been any official policy on such sales one way or another, the spokesperson said, adding that this license was granted on a case-by-case basis. There were licenses granted for small commercial sales of small arms to Ukraine before this year

Another senior Trump administration official said that Trump personally approved the decision to allow the issuing of the license after being presented a decision memo by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. While there was never a formal ban on such weapons transfers, the decision was discussed internally as a lifting of the de facto Obama administration restrictions, the official said.

As I reported in October, the decision over whether to allow lethal arms sales to Ukraine had been sitting on Trump’s desk for months. The National Security Council’s Principals Committee, which includes Cabinet members, met months ago and provided several options to the president.

Experts and officials said Trump’s chosen option was measured; he didn’t approve everything the Ukrainians asked for but nonetheless crossed the line of approving lethal sales, a significant shift in his administration’s approach and U.S. policy overall.

“We have crossed the Rubicon, this is lethal weapons and I predict more will be coming,” said one senior congressional official. It’s likely no mere coincidence that Canada also approved lethal defense sales to Ukraine this week, which would happen only if the Canadian government knew the United States was on board, the official said.

The Trump administration notified leading congressional committees of the sale on Dec. 13 but didn’t make any public announcements, which some say reflects the sensitivity of the decision and concern about how it will be received by Trump supporters who long opposed the move, as well as by Putin.

“The way it was not rolled out tells you something, that they are concerned about the perception of this. They are not trumpeting this as a major policy shift or signature policy priority,” said Samuel Charap, senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation.

The administration’s strategy of approving very limited arms sales is akin to a “Goldilocks” approach, he said, because it attempts to satisfy advocates while not sparking negative reaction by those who fear such a move could risk escalating the crisis.

One senior administration official who previously warned of this very risk is Fiona Hill, now the senior National Security Council director for Russia. She argued in a 2015 Post op-ed that if the United States arms Ukraine, “the Ukrainians won’t be the only ones caught in an escalating military conflict with Russia.”

It’s unclear whether Hill still holds that view, but other top Trump officials have been clear they support sending lethal arms to Ukraine. Mattis said in Kiev in August that “defensive weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor, and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor.” Tillerson declared his support in his Senate confirmation hearing.

Tillerson’s part-time special envoy on the Ukraine crisis, former U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, told me last month he also supports providing lethal weapons to Ukraine. Volker is working with Moscow to revive a peace plan known as Minsk2, but progress is scarce.

According to Volker, Russia has not fulfilled any of its obligations, which include removing its unacknowledged troops and heavy weapons from Ukrainian territory. His argument is that the costs of Russia’s intervention should increase, making Putin choose whether to bear that burden or strike a deal.

Others, including Mattis, see the sales as a principled signal that the United States will support its allies. They say Ukraine is simply defending its own territory and therefore lethal weapons shouldn’t be seen as a provocation.

Meanwhile, the fighting in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine is heating up. According to a BBC report this week, Moscow is pulling all of its personnel from a Russian-Ukrainian joint center that is meant to monitor a frequently violated truce.

Trump himself has consistently stated his desire to work with Putin to resolve the Ukraine crisis, dating back to his presidential campaign.

During the 2016 GOP convention, the Trump campaign beat back efforts to have the Republican platform endorse lethal assistance to Ukraine. Trump campaign officials pushed to soften a proposed amendment to remove the language “lethal defensive weapons” and replace it with “appropriate assistance.”

Trump has now decided that lethal defensive weapons constitute “appropriate assistance.” His decision to approve small amounts of weapons sales likely won’t fundamentally change Putin’s calculus or the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. But it’s one sure sign that Trump’s foreign policy views are evolving — or at least being influenced — as his presidency progresses.