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How Ukraine’s involvement in U.S. politics could affect its long war

Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula was the largest European land grab since World War II. No shots were fired there, but in eastern Ukraine, a brutal war ensued, dragging on for nearly six years so far and killing 13,000. The conflict drew relatively little U.S. attention until the impeachment crisis surrounding President Trump. Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    We have heard much tonight about the central political importance of Ukraine to the impeachment inquiry.

    But that country is also at war with Russian-backed separatists. It's been five-and-a-half brutal years of conflict. So how does the political upheaval here echo on the front lines of Europe's only country at war?

    Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky went to the front lines to find out.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    While the stakes of the bitter political fight being fought over impeachment in Washington may seem high, here, on the outskirts of Donetsk, where Ukraine is fighting an actual shooting war, the stakes are far higher.

    The war in Ukraine has dragged on for five years, and it's killed more than 13,000 people. It is fought in trenches like this one that stretch for hundreds of kilometers through Eastern Ukraine. But it was largely forgotten by the outside world, until it became the backdrop for the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

    Until Mr. Trump took office, Ukraine enjoyed unwavering bipartisan U.S. support in its conflict with Russia, which invaded and annexed Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014. The annexation was the biggest land grab in Europe since World War II and sparked a war in Eastern Ukraine, where Russia and its separatist allies have taken control of parts of the country's eastern industrial heartland known as the Donbass.

    Kiev only barely managed to prevent pro-Russia forces from totally overrunning the country, thanks to the U.S. and its allies, who imposed an economically damaging set of sanctions on Moscow.

  • Barack Obama:

    We're united in our support for Ukraine. We're united in our determination to isolate Russia and impose costs for Russia's actions.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The threat of further sanctions if Russia pushed on have stayed the Kremlin's hand so far.

    Fast-forward to 2019, and several top U.S. officials are alleging that President Trump blocked crucial military aid to the country over the summer to try to get Kiev to open investigations into his American political rival.

    Throughout its campaign against Russia's occupation of the lands that are just a few hundred yards that way, Ukraine has relied on the United States for both military and diplomatic support. In July, the White House suddenly suspended nearly $400 million in aid, causing its Ukrainian allies to question America's resolve.

    The aid included night-vision scopes like this one and first aid kits, which members of Ukraine's 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade showed "NewsHour." But the scope of the assistance is much wider and seeks to modernize Ukraine's armed forces by providing more capable small arms, like new sniper rifles and grenade launchers, radars, vehicles and tactical communication equipment.

    It also pays for advisers and high-tech training simulators.

  • Man (through translator):

    Here, take a look. A flag. Look at the hill behind the lake. It stands out in the light. That's the DNR flag. Might be the Russian flag.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    And though the White House eventually did release the aid to Ukraine under concerted congressional pressure in September, the political damage was felt both in Kiev and here on the front lines.

    Private Alexei Machankoladze, who's served in Ukraine's army as part of the 92nd Brigade for three years, worries that the diplomatic support his country has relied on is disappearing.

  • Alexei Machankoladze (through translator):

    Under Obama, they pressured them with sanctions. As soon as something happened, the pushed sanctions. Not anymore. No one is pressuring Russia with sanctions. And Russia is 100 percent using this situation. Trump has just let Russia off the hook a bit.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The scandal has damaged Ukraine's interests in another way too. After winning a landslide election with 73 percent of the vote earlier this year, Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, entered negotiations to de-escalate hostilities with Russia from a position of strength.

    But as President Trump and an array of associates led by his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani began making political demands of Zelensky's administration, cracks in the U.S.-Ukrainian alliance started becoming apparent.

  • Rudy Giuliani:

    There is a load of evidence that the Ukrainians created false information.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    In his meeting with Zelensky at the United Nations, Trump responded to a question about military aid to Ukraine by telling Zelensky it was up to him to figure it out with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem. That would be a tremendous achievement.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    State television in Russia jumped on the comment, interpreting it as a signal that the U.S. was throwing Ukraine under the bus.

  • Woman (through translator):

    After his triumphant meeting with Donald Trump, in quotes of course, the Ukrainian president had to lie back and enjoy it. We know what happened in the United States. You have nowhere left to go.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    On the front lines, the soldiers of Ukraine's 92nd are skeptical Russia will hold to the terms of any agreement.

    Do you think that, without the strong support of the United States, Ukraine can get a fair peace deal with Russia?

  • Alexei Machankoladze (through translator):

    I think not, no. If, for example, America and Europe don't help, I think Russia will push forward. They won't just occupy this area. It'll be like Crimea. They will invade.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Zelensky has nevertheless pushed forward with a controversial plan to move troops away from the front lines in certain sectors. The idea is that if soldiers can't see the enemy, they will be less likely to engage and casualties will drop.

    Veteran groups see the plan as capitulation to Russia, and thousands have marched in street protests to oppose it, illustrating the challenges for Zelensky on the domestic front. But the biggest challenge is not only the toll in lives lost, but in lives ruined.

    Serhiy Shevchenko showed "NewsHour" how he's reinforced the windows of his home, which were blown out for the eighth time in a recent mortar attack.

  • Serhiy Shevchenko (through translator):

    It used to be called Forest Street. Now I call it Dead Street. This is the most ruined street in Avdiivka.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Although the U.S. has not contributed any troops to Ukraine in combat roles, it continues to train the Ukrainian military at exercises like this one.

    Ukraine, on the other hand, has sent its troops to fight and to die in the U.S.-led mission to Iraq. It's something that U.S. Army Colonel David Jordan of the 45th Infantry brought up at a ceremony dedicated to members of Ukraine's 92nd who were undergoing a U.S. training course in 2017.

  • David Jordan:

    Like the 45th, the 92nd has served in combat in Iraq. Our shared experiences will help us form a bond of trust.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    I asked this member of the 92nd serving in a trench on the front line if he felt that that bond of trust had now been broken.

  • Oleh Ryzhov (through translator):

    We value the U.S. support and hope that it continues. Whatever happens, we will continue to defend our lands. Our morale is high, so we're not feeling down and we won't fall. And that's that.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    On the front lines in Eastern Ukraine, I'm Simon Ostrovsky for the "PBS NewsHour."

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