The Cost of Trump’s Aid Freeze in the Trenches of Ukraine’s War
As President Trump froze military aid to Ukraine and urged it to investigate his rivals, the country was struggling in a bare-bones fight against Russian-backed separatists.
Soldiers digging fresh trenches and bunkers after recently withdrawing about 500 yards from their previous position in Stanytsia Luhanska.CreditBrendan Hoffman for The New York Times
Oct. 24, 2019
ZOLOTE, Ukraine — Lt. Ivan Molchanets peeked over a parapet of sand bags at the front line of the war in Ukraine. Next to him was an empty helmet propped up to trick snipers, already perforated with multiple holes.
In other spots, his soldiers stuff straw into empty uniforms to make dummies, and put logs on their shoulders to make it look like they are carrying American antitank missiles — as a scare tactic.
“This is just the situation here,” he said, shrugging as he held the government’s position. “The enemy is very close.”
Fought in muddy trenches cut through hundreds of miles of farmland, the war in Ukraine has killed 13,000 people, put a large part of the country under Russia’s control and dragged on for five years almost forgotten by the outside world — until it became a backdrop to the impeachment inquiry of President Trump now unfolding in Washington.
Ukraine, politically disorganized and militarily weak, has relied heavily on the United States in its struggle with Russian-backed separatists. But the White House abruptly suspended nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine in July and only restored it last month after a bipartisan uproar in Congress.
The impeachment inquiry hinges on whether Mr. Trump froze the aid to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rivals, especially former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., one of the leading candidates in the 2020 American election.
In closed-door testimony on Tuesday, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, William B. Taylor Jr., said Mr. Trump halted the aid to Ukraine and refused to meet the country’s leader until he agreed to investigate Mr. Biden and his son. Mr. Taylor called the decision “crazy” because it undermined a vital ally, strengthened Russia’s hand and put Ukrainian lives in jeopardy — all for the sake of a political campaign in the United States.
Ukrainian soldiers here at the front line were jolted by the suspension, too. While the aid was restored in time to prevent any military setbacks, it took a heavy psychological toll, they said, striking at their confidence that their backers in Washington stood solidly behind their fight to keep Russia at bay.
“It was very unpleasant to hear about this,” Lieutenant Molchanets said about the halt in American military assistance. But with or without allies, he added, he would continue to fight. “I tell you that as an infantryman and commander.”
Even at the tip of the spear of Ukraine’s armed forces, signs are everywhere of the poverty of the army.
The war began in 2014, after street protesters deposed Ukraine’s kleptocratic, pro-Kremlin president. Russia responded by helping stir up rebellions in two eastern provinces, and since then Russia has wielded the military advantage, able to slip tanks, antiaircraft weapons and soldiers into Ukraine at will.
Ukraine has fought back with repeated appeals for aid, diplomatic pressure, Western sanctions against Russia — and with an army that is holding on by its fingernails.
The war is fought in trenches, like World War I, owing to a peculiarity of the conflict: Neither side uses aviation. Russian antiaircraft systems have cleared the skies.
Soldiers live in log-covered dugouts smelling of socks and earth, warmed by wood stoves. Ukrainian troops cook their own meals from potatoes, carrots and onions, delivered in crates, and from handmade preserves kept in glass jars on wooden shelves.
Their weapons are also basic. Hanging on nails hammered into logs in Lieutenant Molchanets’s bunker were binoculars and a Kalashnikov rifle.
Both sides use heavy artillery, but the only piece of American military aid at the position was a much-prized infrared spotting scope for night fighting. Soldiers also carry American tourniquets in their medical kits, used to stanch bleeding.
“Our allies help us, but the hard and dirty work we do ourselves,” Lieutenant Molchanets said.
Even the most sophisticated weapons the United States offers are of little use here — at least, not in the way they are intended.
In 2018, the Trump administration authorized sales to Ukraine of a shoulder-fired anti-tank missile called the Javelin, reversing an Obama administration policy of supplying only non-lethal aid.
But there is a big catch. The Trump administration provided the missiles on the condition that they not be used in the war, Ukrainian officials and American diplomats have said, lest they provoke Russia to slip more powerful weaponry to the separatists.
“They are not to be on the front line,” Iryna Herashchenko, a former chief settlement negotiator, said of the missiles. Their precise deployment positions are kept secret.
So, Ukrainian soldiers at the front have improvised: They prop up the dummies of straw and extra uniforms that appear to hold the missiles, as a ruse, an army spokesman said.
Soldiers at Lieutenant Molchanets’s position said the fake missiles are conjured from logs and empty ammunition boxes, roughly mimicking the silhouette of a Javelin.
The American military aid suspension hurt Ukraine in another way as well, Ukrainian officials said: It signaled their weakness, just as they were trying to project strength in negotiations with the Russians and needed solid backing from Washington.
Since taking office in May, Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has wanted the United States to take a more active role in pressuring Russia to withdraw its forces from eastern Ukraine — which the Kremlin does not even acknowledge are there — and accept a peace deal to end the conflict.
Mr. Trump has also showed a clear desire for a peace deal on Ukraine, part of his longstanding effort to remove an issue that has driven a wedge between Russia and the West, and has made his cozy relations with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin harder to defend.
Soon after the July 25 phone call in which he urged Mr. Zelensky to investigate his political rivals — the call at the heart of the impeachment inquiry — Mr. Trump seemed confident that he would get a peace deal on Ukraine after all.
“I think he’s going to make a deal with President Putin, and he will be invited to the White House,” Mr. Trump said of the Ukrainian president.
But Mr. Trump has not pressed Russia and sided with Ukraine in the negotiations in the way Mr. Zelensky has urged. To the contrary, at a news conference in New York last month, Mr. Trump backed away from Mr. Zelensky and his troubles in the war, telling the Ukrainian leader, “I really hope you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem.”
By distancing himself from Mr. Zelensky in negotiations, Mr. Trump has made it harder for the Ukrainian government to defend the concessions it is making to end the war.
To revive settlement talks, Mr. Zelensky has already ordered his troops to pull back at some locations on the front line, a move that earned derision from his domestic critics, who called it a capitulation to Russia. Tens of thousands of people in Kiev, the capital, protested the decision this month in Independence Square, the site of the demonstrations that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president five years ago.
Here in eastern Ukraine, the war is far from over. On a crystalline fall day, the contact line, as the front is known, opened onto a meadow of dry grass, stretching a few hundred yards to the opposing positions in a tree line, the oaks and maples in the brilliant autumn colors of orange and yellow.
Lieutenant Molchanets, who is 23, commands a platoon. On the second day of his command, the position came under heavy machine-gun fire. When it was over, he said, “there was a light euphoria. I had no sense of danger. Only later I realized we made mistakes, and we were just lucky.”
The luck soon ran out. A week later, on Sept. 17, two of his soldiers stepped on one of the area’s ubiquitous mines and were gravely wounded.
Kept under the pillow of his bunk was a Ukrainian flag inscribed by friends in Kiev, where he also left a girlfriend behind. “We believe in you,” one note on the flag said.
In the pale fall sunshine last week, soldiers chopped wood for their heating stoves and grilled a shish kebab over a campfire, unconcerned by the explosions in the distance.
“It’s not us” getting hit today, Lt. Ivan Dyachyk said. “It’s our neighbors,” a unit a few miles away.
Mr. Zelensky wants to move the Ukrainian front line back — from a few hundred yards away from the separatists to about 1,000 yards in several locations, including around the town of Zolote, the site of Lieutenant Molchanets’s position.
Separatist forces are also supposed to pull back in these areas, to put both sides out of sniper range and reduce skirmishing, paving the way for settlement talks.
The problem in the town Zolote — and what has set off protests here and in Kiev — is that pulling back will leave some neighborhoods in front of the army’s new trenches, exposing them to the enemy side.
“All of this is scary for me,” worried Larisa Prizova, a clerk in the mayor’s office of Zolote. Her home near the front line now seems likely to wind up inside the buffer area: a shooting gallery between the two armies.
“Maybe Mr. Trump, because of the election in the United States, wants a success in Ukraine” by pushing Mr. Zelensky into a settlement deal that Russia will accept, said Ms. Herashchenko, the former chief negotiator. “But peace and the illusion of peace are not the same things.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Zolote, Ukraine.
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