World: Trump’s Withholding Military Funds Sparks Fear Among Ukraine’s Leaders - PressFrom - US
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WorldTrump’s Withholding Military Funds Sparks Fear Among Ukraine’s Leaders

04:35  12 september  2019
04:35  12 september  2019 Source:   usnews.com

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Ukraine's top leaders have become deeply concerned about President Donald Trump's yet unexplained decision to withhold a key form of military support as they face off against Russian aggression, fearing the move that has wrought intense scrutiny from Congress may signal a broader White House retreat.

Trump’s Withholding Military Funds Sparks Fear Among Ukraine’s Leaders© The Associated Press The Associated Press

"It does cause concern among top leadership in charge of national security," Orysia Lutsevych, manager of Chatham House's Ukraine Forum, says from Kyiv. Officials familiar with the situation in Ukraine have echoed the concerns but declined to speak publicly to avoid further inflaming the already precarious situation.

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Since war broke out in 2014 in the country's eastern reaches, Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists have been able to achieve a stalemate because of U.S. military assistance, Lutsevych says, warning that if the U.S. withdraws it the conflict "could tilt in Russia's favor and lower the cost of the military campaign for them."

The National Security Council, State Department and Pentagon have not provided any public explanation for why the president chose in recent weeks to withhold from Ukraine the latest $250 million in annual funds Congress appropriated in a demonstration of rare bipartisan support. Though a minuscule amount by American defense budget standards, it represents 5 percent of the $4.8 billion Ukraine spent on its defenses last year. And since its inception it has helped the country's atrophied military fill vital gaps in its capabilities that it may not be able to effect on its own.

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Senior officials in Washington and Kyiv tell U.S. News they have been working behind the scenes to rectify or at least offset the president's decision, though concerns remain that Trump appears determined to exploit Ukraine's reliance on the U.S.

The president's unilateral decision has provoked widespread concern and at times outrage on Capitol Hill. It prompted leaders in three House committees to announce Monday evening they plan to investigate whether it is at all designed to coerce Kyiv into cooperating with a politically motivated investigation orchestrated by Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani has been looking into whether Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden pressured the government to end a probe into a company associated with his son – a charge that has largely been discredited and is widely seen as an attempt to sow disinformation about the former vice president.

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The latest controversy threatens to undermine Ukraine's already precarious security situation, as congressional officials warn Kyiv against any action that could raise suspicions it has succumbed to pressure to interfere in domestic American politics.

American officials insist publicly that U.S. support for Ukraine – and its position as a bulwark against Russian aggression there and elsewhere – has not changed. But privately, many in Washington and Kyiv express concerns that Trump's abrupt move, which under current law the president can make alone, indicates an apparent willingness to abandon key allies and emboldens Russia.

"It's a very troubling message to the Ukrainians," says Steven Pifer, a fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security Cooperation. In his former role in the State Department, which included serving as U.S. ambassador in Kyiv in the late 1990s, Pifer helped draft the agreement that would remove nuclear weapons from post-Cold War Ukraine in exchange for promises of U.S. security support, known as the Budapest Memorandum. He sees the latest behavior by the Trump administration as reneging on that pledge at a time of perhaps unprecedented need in Kyiv.

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"The delay would not be consistent with the sort of support we should be providing to Ukraine, given the commitment we made to them," he says of the fund, created in the aftermath of Russia's 2014 incursion. "If you're sitting in Kyiv, it is still going to make you a little bit uneasy, just the fact that it's delayed."

Other factors have contributed to the widespread concern that Trump may have lost interest in supporting Ukraine. He canceled a trip to Poland earlier this month to meet with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, citing the need to monitor the response to Hurricane Dorian, and sent Vice President Mike Pence instead.

Officials within the administration have also expressed to U.S. News privately their concern that the White House has not yet scheduled a specific time to meet with Zelensky, including when he travels to the U.N. General Assembly later this month, despite public announcements of a summit between the two leaders.

And Trump has worried Ukraine watchers with his repeated assertions around this year's G7 Summit that Russia should reenter the group, despite its removal from the economic bloc as retribution for its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent support for separatist fighters in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, known collectively as the Donbas.

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White House officials have previously pushed back on assertions that the president has eased U.S. pressure on Russia, citing his decision to authorize for the first time shipments of lethal arms to the Ukrainian military.

The Ukrainian Embassy in D.C. did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Responding to inquiries about Trump's decision to withhold the military assistance, a State Department spokesman, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told U.S. News, "Our policy on Ukraine has not changed. The international community, including the United States, strongly supports Ukraine in the face of ongoing Russian aggression."

The spokesman declined to discuss the internal budget deliberations regarding Trump's decision and referred further questions to the White House, which, like the Pentagon, did not respond to requests for comment.

But the spokesman referenced the $1.5 billion the U.S. has already supplied to Ukraine as a part of the fund Trump has temporarily siphoned off, known formally as the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, as well as military equipment and training the U.S. along with NATO partners has supplied.

"U.S. security assistance has saved lives while helping to build Ukraine's long-term defense capacity. We remain committed to a robust partnership with Ukraine, as seen by national security advisor John Bolton's recent visit to Kyiv," the spokesman said.

Bolton was fired on Tuesday due at least in part to stark foreign policy disagreements with the president.

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Other officials, however, question the State Department's insistence that U.S. support for Ukraine has not changed.

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Republican, and Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a Democrat, traveled to Ukraine last week and met with Zelensky, the political novice who unseated incumbent Petro Poroshenko in a contentious election earlier this year.

Multiple sources tell U.S. News the pair reportedly told Zelensky and other senior Ukrainian officials that if Trump does not release this year's funds, the Senate will appropriate two years worth of money in the next budget year and include a stipulation in the legislation that the president cannot unilaterally withhold it again. That pledge reportedly did not relieve Ukrainian leaders' concerns.

"We know that there's been a lot of attention here on the president's suspension of security aid, we don't know what the final determination will be," Murphy told Ukrainian non-profit journalism service Hromadske International in an interview during his trip last week. "But I think the president knows there was broad bipartisan support for continued aid and support for lifting what we hope is a temporary hold on this important security funding for Ukraine."

Murphy previously described Trump's cutting off aid to Ukraine as "an absolute gift to the Russians" and raised concern about its apparent connection to Giuliani's attempts to pressure Ukraine into meddling in the upcoming presidential election.

Copyright 2019 U.S. News & World Report

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