KIEV, Ukraine — When Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke with President Donald Trump in the now-infamous July 25 phone call, he believed $391 million worth of military aid was already on its way to Kiev, two Ukrainian officials and a US official told BuzzFeed News.
The Ukrainian government didn’t know it was being held up in Washington by Trump, according to the two Ukrainian officials. Nearly a month after the call — which Zelensky has since described as “good” and Trump has called “perfect” — the Ukrainian government was left stumped when they received word that the aid had in fact been suspended.
Ukraine was expecting $250 million from the Pentagon, plus another $141 million from the State Department, and officials described panic at the news that they wouldn’t be getting the aid they relied upon to fight Russia in a war that has now gone on for more than five years.
“Yes, of course, we were worried, because actually we didn’t find any plausible reason” for the hold-up, said Oleksiy Semeniy, an aide for then-secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Oleksandr Danylyuk.
Ukraine finally learned about the holdup in late August, nearly a month after the call, according to Olena Zerkal, the deputy foreign minister who was acting minister at the time of the call. And they only found out from a “letter sent to us from our Washington Embassy” that provided no explanation for the move, she said. Zerkal said she couldn’t remember the exact date of the letter, but it was before Politico broke the news of the holdup on Aug. 28.
The US official, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity, confirmed this timeline and said Ukraine was kept out of the loop on the aid holdup because it was thought that the issue would be solved quickly.
In fact, Trump told his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to freeze the aid back in mid-July, according to a Washington Post report last week. The decision had reportedly been communicated by the US Office of Management and Budget to State and Defense department officials on July 18 — a week before the phone call with Zelensky, and around a month before the Ukrainians eventually found out.
The Ukrainians officials’ comments underscore their concern over the frozen military support and show for the first time just how long Kiev was left out of the loop about its delay. They also suggest that the White House blindsided Zelensky, who was unaware that he wasn’t getting the military aid he was expecting when he spoke to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, about the conflict on Aug. 7. Ukraine has long needed US assistance to transform its army into a fierce fighting force that can withstand the might of Russia’s military.
The Ukrainian presidential office did not respond to a request for comment. The US Embassy in Kiev declined a request for an interview. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump has come under increased pressure in recent days for his decision and is facing an impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives as a result of his phone call with Zelensky, in which he pushed his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a leading Democratic opponent in the 2020 presidential race, and his son Hunter.
Zelensky has tried to distance himself from the row in Washington over whether the aid was delayed as a quid pro quo by Trump for his assistance in investigating Biden. “It wasn’t explained to me” why the money didn’t come through, Zelensky said on Tuesday. But he didn’t address the question of when he knew the aid had been held up.
The timeline of when Ukraine knew about the aid presented by the Ukrainian officials could prove highly relevant to the House of Representatives as it looks into key aspects of the impeachment inquiry. Knowing exactly when and why Trump delayed aid to Ukraine will be central to the decision to draft articles of impeachment.
Last week Trump claimed he held up the aid because of concerns about corruption in the country. “We want to make sure that country is honest,” Trump said of Ukraine. “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
But he changed his reason the next day, saying he ordered the aid held because of what he said was a lack of similar support to Ukraine from other Western nations.
House Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry have accused Trump of leveraging the millions in military aid — which had been approved by Congress — to ensure Zelensky would help him damage Biden.
The US has provided Ukraine with about $1.5 billion in military support since 2014, as it has fought a war with Russia and its separatist proxies that has killed more than 13,000 people. The support has paid for sniper rifles, grenade launchers, radars, communications systems, medical equipment, and on-the-ground training.
On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported the State Department and Congress had green-lighted a $39 million sale of Javelin anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. That followed the Trump administration’s delivery of $47 million worth of Javelins last year, in a move that the Obama administration had declined to make.
In Kiev, last year’s delivery of the Javelins was taken as a sign that, despite Trump’s overtures to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the US would continue to stand by the side of its longtime Eastern European ally.
Then came news of the $391 million being held up in Washington. Semeniy said it puzzled him, Danylyuk, and other security officials, and sent them into a panicked search for answers.
“Immediately after people got the message in Kiev, on different levels, they started deliberations,” Semeniy said. “Firstly, to deliberate on the reasons [for the holdup]. Secondly, to deliberate on the ways how — as quickly as possible — to reverse the decision somehow.”
Ultimately, it was bipartisan pressure in Washington that forced Trump to unlock the aid in mid-September.
Even though the aid was released — and Ukraine looks set to receive all but maybe $30 million of it — many in Ukraine believe irreversible damage has been done.
Pavlo Klimkin, who served as foreign minister of Ukraine until June, told BuzzFeed News, “it was the wrong decision in the wrong time, because it weakened our position” as Zelensky was engaged in fresh negotiations with Russia over the war in eastern Ukraine and major prisoner exchanges.
“Fundamentally, I believe it was very damaging,” he said.