What the Biden administration learned from past presidents about military aid in Ukraine

The U.S. this week authorized one of its largest arms packages yet for Ukraine with $800 million worth of weapons designed to help it against an expected battle in the east. The question of whether to arm Ukraine is one that has challenged American policymakers for years. Ali Rogin looks back at how recent presidents have addressed that question and what the Biden administration has learned.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    This week, the United States authorized one of its largest arms packages yet for Ukraine. The $800 million worth of weapons is designed to help Ukraine in what's expected to be a large upcoming battle in Eastern Ukraine.

    The question of whether to arm Ukraine is one that has challenged American policymakers for years.

    Ali Rogin has a look back at how recent presidents have dealt with that question, and what lessons the Biden administration learned from them.

  • Ali Rogin:

    As Ukraine's Eastern Donbass region prepares for a renewed Russian offensive, the U.S. announced another transfer of weapons to Ukraine from its own reserves, this time including heavy weapons.

  • John Kirby, Pentagon Press Secretary:

    They will be facing Russian forces that are familiar with the territory in that part of Ukraine.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Eight years ago, Russia first invaded Eastern Ukraine, and the face of U.S. policy in Ukraine was Vice President Joe Biden.

    During the Obama administration, Biden made six visits to Ukraine. But, before the invasion, he was focused on anti-corruption reform, democracy, and the so-called reset with Russia.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Were working, as you know, Mr. President, to reset our relationship with Russia. But I assure you and all Ukrainian people that it will not come at Ukraine's expense.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But then, in 2014, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea, and started the brutal war in the Donbass.

    The U.S. imposed targeted sanctions, pushed for a diplomatic solution, and provided nonlethal aid, like helmets, first aid kits, and radars, to the Ukrainians, but no lethal aid, like weapons and ammunition, despite President Petro Poroshenko's pleas to Congress.

  • Petro Poroshenko, Former Ukrainian President:

    Please understand me correctly. Blankets, night-vision goggles are also important, but one cannot win the war with blankets.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Alina Polyakova is the president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington-based think tank.

    Alina Polyakova, Director, Center for European Policy Analysis: The Obama administration wasn't willing to go into the so-called lethal aid category, because the fear was that there would be a provocation of Russia to do something even more escalatory in Ukraine.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The Pentagon did start training Ukrainian soldiers in 2015. In an exit interview with "The Atlantic" magazine, Mr. Obama said Ukraine — quote — "is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do," and that "there's always going to be some ambiguity on U.S. policy there."

    Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: It is an honor to be with you.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Donald Trump brought a different sort of ambiguity. While he embraced Putin, his administration armed Ukraine, selling Kyiv hundreds of Javelin anti-tank missiles in 2018.

    The next year, Ukraine was set to receive almost $400 million in military aid, including money for more weapons. But Trump blocked it, sparking the events that led to his first impeachment. In a July 2019 call, newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine was — quote — "almost ready" to buy more Javelins.

    Trump responded, "I would like you to do us a favor, though," asking Zelenskyy to investigate his presumed presidential challenger Biden and his son Hunter, who had had business in Ukraine.

    Trump and his aides defended the hold.

    Mick Mulvaney, Former White House Acting Chief of Staff: We do that all the time with foreign policy.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Top officials said that was not true, like William Taylor, who served as ambassador to Ukraine under the previous three presidents.

    William Taylor, Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine: I and others sat in astonishment. In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The hold was lifted in September 2019, and Ukraine received the funding.

    Alina Polyakova says, policy-wise, Ukraine benefited from the Trump years.

  • Alina Polyakova:

    The Trump administration signed off on these Javelin anti-tank systems that the Obama administration drew a red line on. And the response from Russia was really not a peep.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The considerable Washington fallout was mostly political. To defend Trump, his lieutenants and allies made Ukraine a scapegoat.

    Mike Pompeo, Former U.S. Secretary of State: Would that money get to the right place, or would there be corruption in Ukraine, and the money wouldn't flow to the mission that it was intended for?

  • Ali Rogin:

    Once he returned to the White House in the top job, Mr. Biden continued providing lethal aid, announcing a new $60 million package during Zelenskyy's first visit in September 2021, including more Javelins.

  • President Joe Biden:

    Good to see you again.

  • Ali Rogin:

    As Russia's military massed on Ukraine's border, Biden tried diplomacy. He held a virtual summit with Putin in early December, and reportedly delayed providing another $200 million worth of military aid until the end of the month.

    Dustin Walker is a defense expert with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy organization.

  • Dustin Walker, American Enterprise Institute:

    What we saw in the run-up to the conflict in Ukraine is the Biden administration operating under the mistaken belief that military power and diplomacy came at the expense of one another.

  • Ali Rogin:

    A month before the invasion, Biden was highlighting the weapons already provided, and predicting how he thought war in Ukraine would end.

  • President Joe Biden:

    I have already shipped over $600 million worth of sophisticated equipment, defensive equipment, to the Ukrainians. The cost of going into Ukraine in terms of physical loss of life for the Russians, they will be able to prevail over time, but it's going to be heavy.

  • Ali Rogin:

    In early February, the U.S. deployed troops to fortify NATO's eastern front, and impose sanctions in coordination with NATO and the E.U.

    Two days after the invasion began, Biden approved a third weapons tranche, this time $350 million worth, including more Javelins and Stinger anti-aircraft systems. In total, Biden has made provided almost $3 billion in security assistance since the war began.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President:

    Ukraine needs weapons supplies.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Just before Wednesday's announcement of new weapons, Zelenskyy released a video, in English, with specific requests. Some of the items, like artillery systems and armored personnel carriers, are now headed to Ukraine for the first time. Others, like jets, are not.

    Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged that the list isn't everything Ukraine wants.

  • John Kirby:

    Clearly, it's curated. I mean, but it very much reflects what they need, and it's a growth — an outgrowth of actual, no-kidding discussions that we have had with Ukraine.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The U.S. says the aid will get to Ukraine quickly. But Ukrainian officials say the decisions to send them are taking too long, as Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told "NewsHour" special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky.

  • Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Foreign Minister:

    In the end, we get everything, but the time between the initial question that we asked and the moment when we get it is wasted.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Mr. Biden is mindful of that criticism, says Dustin Walker.

  • Dustin Walker:

    As the conduct of the war has continued, the Biden administration has sort of expanded its willingness to do more. And you are seeing that in terms of the pace and scope of weapons deliveries in Ukraine.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Today's American policy towards Ukraine is much different than it was in 2014. Its effectiveness is getting tested every day of this war.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin.

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