KYIV — At the heart of the impeachment saga that ended on Wednesday in Donald Trump’s acquittal was $391 million in US military assistance for Ukraine that the president ordered be withheld.
But that aid package, which was eventually released last September, wasn’t the only US arms transfer meant for the war-torn country that was held up. Several direct commercial sales of arms and ammunition to Ukraine faced significant delays at the same time — and they remain mysteriously frozen months later, BuzzFeed News has learned. Now, after a lengthy wait and down payments in the tens of millions of dollars for the equipment, Kyiv wants its money back.
The Trump administration is currently withholding approval for at least six commercial orders for arms and ammunition from US companies to Ukraine, together worth roughly $30 million, according to three current Ukrainian officials and a former senior US official who have direct knowledge of the sales, straining an already fragile relationship between the two countries. All four officials said that five of the pending sales from US companies have been delayed for around a year, and one of the sales has been held up for more than a year. The officials said they haven’t been able to get any answers from the Trump administration about why the deals, which typically take around two months to approve and must be licensed by the State Department, haven’t received approval.
“It might be wise for the Ukrainians to look for other sources” from which to buy arms and ammunition, said the US official, who said he has questioned senior White House and State Department officials about the issue. He said he received only a cryptic response from both that the sales are still being “evaluated,” despite the Ukrainians already putting money down on them.
The US Embassy in Kyiv declined to comment on the matter, and the White House and State Department did not respond to requests for comments. Ukroboronprom, the Ukrainian state-owned arms conglomerate and the official buyer of all the arms and ammunition, also didn’t respond when asked for comment.
Two Ukrainian officials who spoke to BuzzFeed News believe the delays could be related to a Chinese attempt to buy a strategic Ukrainian aerospace company that the US has tried to block, raising the possibility of Kyiv getting caught up in a power play between Beijing and Washington.
The delay of a $10 million ammunition sale to Ukraine was first reported by Yahoo News in September, just as the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry was gaining steam. But the five other sales, which include lethal weapons and are worth some $20 million in total, are being reported here for the first time by BuzzFeed News.
The Ukrainian and US officials agreed to speak to BuzzFeed News because they said the sales are vital to Ukraine’s national security amid the simmering conflict with Russia and its separatist proxy forces in the country’s east. The sales would also strengthen Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s negotiating position as he pushes for lasting peace with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to concerns about possible professional retaliation and because they weren’t authorized to speak with the media about the matter.
The US's direct commercial sales are brokered between private companies and foreign buyers, but they need to be licensed by the State Department. Ukraine has made several arms purchases from US companies this way in the past. According to one of the Ukrainian officials who works directly on such sales, as well as State Department guidelines, sales of this sort typically take one to two months for approval. “It’s never a totally smooth process, but now it’s taking several extra months,” that Ukrainian official said. “It’s a trend of slowing down.”
The ammunition sale, the export license for which was submitted to the State Department in November 2018, is the largest and “most critical” of the six sales, two of the Ukrainian officials said. Ukraine lost one of its ammunition factories to Russia-backed forces when they seized control of a large swath of the eastern Luhansk region. And explosions destroyed several ammunition depots since then, which the government attributed to Russian sabotage. The other sales — which were prepaid between January and March 2019, according to one of the Ukrainian officials — include arms needed by Ukrainian forces as they fight their Russian and separatist enemies in the trenches. Two of the Ukrainian officials and the US official said the other sales include machine guns, sniper rifles, and handguns, as well as night vision devices and other equipment that the country’s soldiers and security forces use on a daily basis.
The war in eastern Ukraine has destroyed entire towns and critical infrastructure since it broke out in 2014. It’s also killed some 14,000 people and displaced nearly 2 million more. A tenuous ceasefire deal agreed in February 2015 managed to halt fierce tank battles and the use of indiscriminate artillery systems, but soldiers on the front line remain engaged in trench warfare that includes the use of mortar systems and snipers. On average, two or three Ukrainian soldiers die every week.
The US has provided some $1.6 billion to Ukraine in the way of security assistance since the war began, including Javelin anti-tank missiles approved by the Trump administration. Trump himself has touted those, saying in Davos last month that President Barack Obama gave Ukraine “pillows and sheets and things like that, and I gave them tank busters.” But with the war at a simmer and those missiles required to be stored far away from the front line as part of the deal, Ukrainian troops told BuzzFeed News last November that what really makes a difference on the battlefield is the nonlethal aid delivered on Obama’s watch — and the equipment Kyiv’s obtained through commercial sales.
The three Ukrainian officials said that between them they’ve inquired with the US Embassy in Kyiv, the State Department, and senior US officials visiting the country, but have not been able to get a straight answer about the delayed sales. Two of the Ukrainians said that since the start of the impeachment process, their inquiries have been ignored by US officials. The third Ukrainian said he’s only received responses along the lines of “ask us again later” — and when he does, they repeat the line.
The three Ukrainians couldn’t say whether the arms and ammunition delays were related directly to Trump’s demand for Zelensky to open investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as another into the debunked theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election in an effort to get Hillary Clinton elected. But since the sales were delayed before Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call with Zelensky, they felt there are likely other reasons.
One of the Ukrainians said he thought the delays could be due to corruption concerns raised by a military procurement scandal involving allies of Ukraine’s former president Petro Poroshenko early last year, and similar past scandals in the country’s defense sector.
Another Ukrainian official who described being stumped by the delays said that he thought they could be because the US wants Ukraine’s anti-monopoly committee to decide in its favor on the pending sale of Motor Sich, a strategic aerospace company, to a Chinese firm. “Motor Sich is the reason” for the delays in the sales, said that official, who cited conversations with US officials over the course of last summer and early fall.
In 2017, China’s Beijing Skyrizon Aviation tried to buy a controlling stake in Motor Sich, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of helicopter and airplane engines, to help upgrade its military. The offer came as Motor Sich was struggling to survive after losing its biggest market when Kyiv outlawed military exports to Russia after it annexed Crimea and fueled the war in the east. But in 2018, the Security Service of Ukraine raided the Motor Sich plant on national security grounds and a Ukrainian court froze the transaction. It remains in limbo, but the US would like to see it canceled altogether, said the Ukrainian official, who meets regularly with US officials in Kyiv and Washington.
The third Ukrainian official and the US official said the delays were most likely due to bureaucratic reasons, although they said they couldn’t imagine what sort exactly at this point.
“They’re going to have a hard time explaining why” the sales have been delayed, the US official said of his government.