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World

U.S. Aid To Ukraine Is Mostly Military, Not Cash

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

American military aid to Ukraine is at the center of the impeachment inquiry. The Democrats say President Trump held it back to get a political favor out of Ukraine. Republicans counter that Trump was concerned about corruption. NPR's Lucian Kim looked into exactly what the aid included and what its impact has been.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: The conflict between Russia and Ukraine started five years ago. Russia first seized Crimea, then backed an armed insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 13,000 people. Since the fighting broke out, the U.S. has provided $1.5 billion in security assistance, everything from Humvees and night vision goggles to patrol boats and Javelin anti-tank missiles.

OLENA TREGUB: Ukraine is basically fighting Russia alone. So when there is one country in the world, America, that ships us weapons like Javelins, this is huge symbolic factor for Ukraine, and this is what matters the most.

KIM: Olena Tregub heads the Independent Defense Anti-Corruption Committee, a nongovernmental watchdog group in Kyiv. She says 90% of Ukraine's foreign military aid comes from America. Tregub acknowledges corruption has been a huge problem in Ukraine's defense sector, but she says President Trump should not worry about U.S. taxpayer dollars going to waste.

TREGUB: Trump can be happy because right now, Ukraine, for real, is fighting its defense sector corruption, which was an issue under the former president. But it did not concern security assistance. It was about looting money from Ukrainian defense budget - Ukrainian money.

KIM: In any case, this year's $400 million in military aid does not reach Ukraine in cash. Mykhailo Samus, a Ukrainian defense analyst, says the money actually stays in the U.S.

MYKHAILO SAMUS: Ukraine doesn't receive money. We have only goods, services and other stuff which United States send into Ukraine directly.

KIM: The Javelin anti-tank missiles, which the Trump administration shipped to Ukraine last year, are probably the most dramatic example of U.S. military hardware, but they're in storage far from the front line. What's much more important for the Ukrainian Armed Forces is military training. A U.S. Army video shows Ukrainian soldiers running through drills in western Ukraine more than 600 miles from the fighting.

(CROSSTALK)

KIM: The training center is the centerpiece of U.S. military assistance, with American troops rotating in and out. Just last month, soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard deployed to Ukraine. Retired General Ben Hodges was in command of the U.S. Army in Europe when the joint training started. He says there's more to U.S. aid than the symbolism of the Javelins or the capabilities of counter-artillery radar. Hodges says the U.S. military has also benefited from its cooperation with Ukraine.

BEN HODGES: We saw this as a great opportunity to learn because, you know, no Americans have been under Russian artillery fire or rocket fire or that kind of lethal environment with Russian capabilities. And so we were able to learn a lot from Ukrainian soldiers and officers.

KIM: Hodges says the lessons learned were so valuable the U.S. Army changed its own training model. But military analyst Samus says, of course, it's the Ukrainian army that's changed the most, thanks to help from the U.S. and other NATO allies, like Canada and Poland.

SAMUS: It's absolute to defend our forces what we had before. Before 2014, even in the military doctrine, we didn't have any enemies. After 2014, Ukrainian forces became a real instrument to fight against aggression.

KIM: That's only a first step, though. Samus says Ukraine still needs foreign aid to build up its defenses since the country's conflict with Russia is far from over.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAIL MAIL SONG, "SPEAKING TERMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.