On several consecutive mornings in early 2014, I woke up with one agonizing plea: Please, Lord, let the Ukrainian service members still be alive. I feared that while I slept, Russians might have slaughtered thousands of outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainians trapped on their own air and naval bases.
Hostilities between Russia and Ukraine began in 2014 with Russia's lightning-quick occupation of Crimea, the region coveted by Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Within hours, Ukrainian service members at various military installations were trapped on their own soil by Russian forces. If they had fought back, almost certainly they would have died. If they didn't resist, it was unclear at the time how they would fare. My job, as deputy assistant secretary of defense, was to lead a team drafting proposals for then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and President Barack Obama outlining options for the United States to help Ukraine defend itself against further Russian aggression.
The situation was urgent: Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt, Russia-friendly president of Ukraine that Paul Manafort - Donald Trump's future campaign chairman and, as of last year, a felon - helped elect, had overseen years of government plunder. His military was under-resourced and gave up without a fight. The Russians seized dominance of the air and sea, took over Crimea and started another war in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, divided among ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, that persists today. At the outset, Ukraine's government needed, and sought, both lethal and nonlethal aid from Western nations. The Obama administration eventually announced a $53 million nonlethal aid package later that year, prompting Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, to senselessly chide, "Blankets and night-vision goggles are important" but "one cannot win a war with blankets."
Republicans in Congress criticized Obama for not providing weaponry. In contrast, President Donald Trump was praised after approving arms sales to Ukraine in 2017, including the Javelin antitank systems mentioned by Ukraine's current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in the now-infamous July 25 call with Trump that's at the heart of the House of Representatives's current impeachment inquiry. Now, though, Trump is accused of delaying nearly $400 million in military aid at around the same time he encouraged Zelensky to look for compromising information about one of Trump's political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, whose son, Hunter Biden, was on the board of directors of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma.
In the context of Ukraine's ongoing shooting war - and the political war between the U.S. and Russia - Trump's alleged actions suggest the president's contempt for his constitutional duty and his lack of stewardship of American military and diplomatic resources. But they're also a reminder of his persistent flirtation with prerogatives claimed by Putin, unquestionably a U.S. adversary. Trump's motivation may have been domestic politics, but the urgent need to defend against Putin's machinations is what made Ukraine vulnerable to Trump's apparent push in the first place.
In 2016, Ukrainian officials found a ledger that catalogued payments made to Manafort by Ukraine's government. Around the same time, Manafort was denying reports that he played a part in weakening language in the Republican Party platform regarding assistance to Ukraine in their war against Russia.
Before and after that, Ukrainians have died fighting Russia-supported military elements that the Kremlin has denied sending. This year, three Russians and a Ukrainian were charged in the Netherlands for the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine, with a Russian-made Buk missile, killing 298 people. Russian-backed forces have not pressed all the way to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, mostly content to let the fighting stalemate in the East.
This has continued for five years. During that time, the U.S. has provided over $1 billion of defense-related aid to Ukraine. The E.U. and Western allies have provided billions in loans and millions in other forms of aid. Meanwhile, the war drags on - over a year ago, one Washington Post report put the death toll in the Donbas conflict at more than 10,000; according to a recent report, the United Nations puts the number at more than 13,000. Ukrainians, rightly, continue to insist that Russia has no right to their territory or to determine their political fates.
We are supporting Ukraine to stop Putin. If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, Moscow will use military aggression again. Eventually, Russia could move against a NATO ally, which would almost automatically require us to go to war pursuant to NATO's Article 5 principle and provision that "an attack against one" is "an attack against all."
This summer, Ukrainians elected Zelensky, a 41-year-old entertainer and political newcomer, on the basis of his anti-corruption platform. Zelensky has also signaled that he wants to make peace with Russia. If anything, Trump should have been increasing support to Ukraine so as to strengthen Zelensky's negotiating hand with Putin. Instead, we've learned in the last several days - from Trump's own statements, from news accounts and from the rough transcript of the July 25 call released Wednesday - that in recent months, his administration held up vital military assistance to Ukraine and also referenced investigating Biden on the call. The inference, still under investigation, is that Trump was pressuring Zelensky to assist his 2020 political campaign by finding dirt on the Bidens, and to cloud the record on Manafort's crimes and Russia's interference with America's 2016 presidential election.
Imagine if our president hinted to a NATO ally that was under attack, let's say the United Kingdom, that he'd only come to its defense if Prime Minister Boris Johnson did him a favor. Or, conversely, imagine if another ally's leader, such as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were to tell Trump that he'd only help us defend ourselves if Trump helped him out politically.
It's this kind of scenario that Trump stands accused of now. If his apparent actions had remained secret, it could have prevented aid from flowing to Ukraine; Ukraine's government potentially could have been able to blackmail our president by threatening to publicize his request. Any other country with access to this conversation, via espionage, might have been able to do so as well. Trump's actions, then, could simultaneously amount to a betrayal of public trust, a fraudulent manipulation of allocated funds, a roadblock to U.S. policy and a counterintelligence risk. Most government employees with a security clearance would have had it revoked over an episode like this. Trump, though, says his call with Zelensky was "perfect."
Now, praise the Lord (and a brave, principled whistle-blower), the secret is out. While Congress works to investigate Trump, a unified federal government must demonstrate to Putin and the world that in the war with Russia, the United States is on Ukraine's side. We should join European nations in pressuring Russia to implement the Minsk protocols, designed to protect Ukrainian sovereignty, and make clear that Ukraine isn't a bargaining chip - either on the geopolitical chessboard, or for the political gain of the American president.
Evelyn N. Farkas wrote this for The Washington Post.