(CNSNews.com) – The fact that President Trump – unlike his predecessor – sent lethal military aid to Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression is “the real story that’s been lost in all this,” National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said Sunday, in reference to Democrats’ drive to impeach the president.
Appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” O’Brien recalled visiting Ukraine as an election monitor in 2014 and being asked by Ukrainians why “the arsenal of democracy” would not provide their country with military aid.
The election came amid Russian military intervention in support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, and months after President Vladimir Putin had annexed the country’s strategic Crimea peninsula.
“I was there as part of a bipartisan election observation mission and I had young Ukrainian soldiers and young Ukrainians come up to me and say, ‘Why won’t the U.S., the arsenal of democracy, send us lethal aid? You’re sending us blankets and MREs. Why won’t President Obama send us military aid?’”
(MREs are pre-packaged military meals, or “meals, ready-to-eat.”)
O’Brien said “the Obama-Biden administration” had provided “no military aid” to Ukraine, but “when President Trump got into office, he sent military aid.”
“So I think what people ought to be focusing on is the president has been helping the Ukrainians defend themselves by sending them lethal – lethal military aid to stand up to the Russians,” he said. “That’s the real story that’s been lost in all this.”
At the center of the impeachment push are allegations that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine, in an attempt to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“President Trump is the first president to send lethal military aid to Ukraine,” O’Brien reiterated. “I think it’s very important. And I think that’s something that’s been lost in – in all the hullabaloo about the – about the telephone call [between Trump and Zelensky on July 25].”
O’Brien, who became National Security Advisor in September, also defended Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders generally.
“I’ve been with President Trump in two dozen conversations, either in person or on the phone with foreign leaders,” he said. “And if the American people could be on those phone calls, they’d be extraordinarily proud of the president – how he represents America, the cordiality that he – he has with world leaders, but also the tough message that he has to – to protect U.S. interests.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday also contrasted the two administrations’ approaches, telling WCSC-TV, a CBS affiliate in South Carolina, that Trump had wanted to ensure “that Vladimir Putin wouldn’t be able to inflict hardship on the people of Ukraine, so we provided defensive weapons systems to the people of Ukraine.”
“The previous administration chose not to do that,” he said. “They chose to provide blankets. We gave them real weapons, where they could fight against the Russians. I am proud of what the administration did with its Ukraine policy.”
‘Our priority and our focus is on non-lethal assistance’
The Ukraine crisis began when the Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovich fled the country in February 2014 amid mass anti-government protests and sought sanctuary in Russia.
Russia blamed the fall of its ally on Ukrainian “terrorists” and their Western sponsors, and threw its support behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. It moved troops into Crimea and organized a referendum – not recognized by most of the international community – in which 97 percent of voters supported joining the Russian Federation. Putin annexed Crimea in March.
In response the Obama administration imposed visa bans and sanctions, but declined to provide lethal military aid to Kyiv. It did supply MREs, helmets, radios, body armor, and night vision goggles.
In August of that year, as the crisis deepened with Russia firing rockets and moving artillery across the border, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated that it was U.S. policy to provide Ukraine with “non-lethal assistance” only.
“Is there nothing more the West can do beyond economic sanctions that so far have been completely ineffective, to try to prevent one country from invading and destabilizing another?” a reporter asked.
“Well, certainly, we have a range of tools at our disposal,” Psaki said. “I think beyond the economic sanctions we’ve also provided a great deal of nonlethal assistance that has included some equipment that’s been helpful as well to the Ukrainians.”
“We’re continuing to work at this. This will be a discussion with the international community,” she said. “But it hasn’t changed the fact that our preference and our priority and our focus is on non-lethal assistance and is on a diplomatic path forward.”
The FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act created the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, authorizing equipment including anti-armor weapon systems, mortars, grenade launchers, small arms, and ammunition. Congress appropriated $850 million from FY2016 to FY2019.
In 2017, Trump announced plans to provide Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles, and a package of missiles and launchers worth $47 million was approved the following year.
In June this year the Pentagon announced $250 million in security assistance to Ukraine.
That funding was held up by the White House until September 12, a decision Trump later attributed to his concerns about high levels of corruption in that country, and frustration that the Europeans were not doing more to help their neighbor.
His Democratic opponents argue the aid was delayed in an inappropriate bid to force Zelensky to investigate Biden. Zelensky himself has repeatedly denied having come under any pressure from the U.S. president.