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In today's impeachment hearing, Republicans mentioned a number of times that the Obama administration did not provide lethal aid to Ukraine, even though officials (at least today's witness Ambassador Yovanovitch) did ask for it. According Fox News reporting:

And Republicans were able to extract some noteworthy statements from the witness, including that despite allegations President Trump withheld support to Ukraine in exchange for politically advantageous investigations, it was Trump – not his predecessor, Barack Obama – who ultimately provided “defensive lethal aid” to Kiev.

In this question, I'd like to inquire if there were any statements by the Obama administration (while Obama was president), either by President Obama or officials speaking on behalf of the administration, regarding lethal aid to Ukraine.

Some of my research:

Based on the above, I think it's interesting to know now to what extent there was discussion on lethal aid at the time. In this question, I'd like to focus on the Democrats, as the implication is that may not have done enough.

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Almost everything that Obama administration has officially said on defense/military aid to Ukraine appears to have been vague generalities. When it comes to details, it seems the Obama era PR on Ukraine was done largely with [semi-]sanctioned officials talking to the press, sometimes on condition of anonymity, e.g. NPR reported on Feb 2, 2015:

President Barack Obama is reconsidering sending lethal assistance to Ukraine, a senior administration official said Monday, but continues to have concerns about the effectiveness of that step and the risks of a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.

The official said Obama is specifically concerned about the besieged Ukrainian military’s capacity for using high-powered, American-supplied weaponry. The president has also argued that no amount of arming the Ukrainians would put them on par with Russia’s military prowess.

The official requested anonymity to speak because the person was not authorized to talk publicly about internal deliberations.

The U.S. accuses Russia of supplying the pro-Kremlin separatists that are stirring instability in eastern Ukraine. The U.S. has limited its supplies to the Ukrainian military to non-lethal aid, such as gas masks and radar technology to detect incoming fire.

However, some administration officials have been pressing Obama for months to step up that assistance. With violence in eastern Ukraine on the rise in recent weeks, the official said Obama is willing to take a fresh look at supplying Ukraine with lethal aid, along with other options for calming tensions.

The non-lethal aid still involved (lightly) armored vehicles and counter-mortar radar if I recall correctly. They've only got counter-mortar radar, not the longer range counter-artillery one Ukraine had hoped for because the US apparently was afraid back then than with the longer-range radar Ukraine might fire at batteries on Russian soil, as the BBC reported on Feb 5, 2015:

Modern heavy armour gave the rebels the advantage in fighting at Donetsk airport recently, Reuben Johnson of Jane's Defence told the BBC. [...]

Ukraine has asked the US for Javelin anti-tank missiles and hi-tech radar that locates heavy artillery, he said. [...]

"About 70% of Ukrainian anti-tank missiles are old or even expired. But almost all the Russian armour is reactive - that means boxes of explosives cover the tank, so when a missile hits a box it blows up the missile without harming the tank."

Last year Ukraine asked the US for counter-battery radars, which can show the path of incoming projectiles, he said.

Such tracking radars enable troops to pinpoint an artillery or mortar unit, which can then be targeted.

"They got counter-mortar radar - but its range is shorter, and it didn't work," Mr Johnson said.

Counter-artillery radar was not supplied apparently because the US government feared that Ukraine might then target artillery pieces firing from Russian soil, he said.

Nevertheless, the counter-mortar radar was quite useful as some experts quoted by DefenseNews say:

Some of the early nonlethal aid was useful. After Ukraine received 20 Lockheed Martin AN/TPQ-53 radar systems that track incoming mortar and short-range artillery fire in 2015, the casualty rate for units equipped with those system went from 47 percent to about 18 percent, [Col. Andrii] Ordynovych, [Ukraine’s military attache in Washington] said.

Likewise LA Times reported in March 2015,

The United States will provide Ukrainian forces fighting Russia-backed separatists $75 million in nonlethal equipment, including small reconnaissance drones, radios and military ambulances, a senior administration official said.

President Obama has also approved the transfer of 30 armored Humvees and up to 200 unarmored Humvees under a separate authority, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and requested anonymity. [...]

Thus far, the U.S. has given only nonlethal aid to Ukraine’s military, including medicine, night-vision goggles and armored vests since the conflict erupted. As many as 300 American troops are also to be sent to the Lviv region on Ukraine’s western border, far from the conflict zone, to train Ukrainian soldiers. [...]

The package includes counter-mortar radars for warning and protection against mortar and artillery fire and night-vision devices. It also includes small remote-controlled Raven drones, made by AeroVironment Inc. in Simi Valley, that are thrown into the air by soldiers and provide a bird’s-eye view of what’s happening over a ridge or around a bend.

I did find a statement of Obama himself from August 2014, as paraphrased and partially quoted by RFERL:

U.S. President Barack Obama says Ukraine does not need additional military assistance to help fight pro-Russian separatists but an invasion by Russia would raise "a different set of questions."

Obama's comments came after NATO said on August 6 that Moscow had increased its forces along the border with eastern Ukraine to some 20,000 troops.

Obama said Ukraine is fighting separatists "who can't match the Ukrainian Army."

Ukrainian officials have urged Washington to provide lethal aid to Kyiv.

I'm not sure if Obama himself made more nuanced statements after that.

NYT reported in June 2015:

With the peace process stalled and violence escalating in Ukraine, a bipartisan coalition in Congress is defying President Obama and European allies by pressing the administration to provide weapons to the embattled nation. [...]

So far, the Obama administration has refused to provide lethal aid, fearing that it would only escalate the bloodshed and give President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a pretext for further incursions. [...]

Legislation to authorize lethal military aid for Ukraine has gone to the White House before, but Mr. Obama has not acted on it. And while this bill authorizes the weapons it cannot compel the administration to send them. The measure is largely meant to put renewed pressure on the White House. [...]

But in the latest sign of the reluctance by the White House, Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, gave a speech on Thursday in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in which she excoriated Russia but did not mention sending offensive weapons as a possibility.

There's no quote from Obama himself in that later piece though.

There's (paywalled) interview with Obama from 2016, that was paraphrased as

As regards the two-year-old conflict between Ukraine and Russia, the president said Ukraine is a core interest for Moscow, in a way that it is not for the United States. He noted that, since Ukraine does not belong to NATO, it is vulnerable to Russian military domination, and that “we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.”

The interview is actually quote long but does not get into any specifics on aid to Ukraine. Obama does spend quite some time rejecting the "crazy man" theory of Nixon as he attributed it.

The site of the Obama White House has a page on aid to Ukraine, last updated in June 2016. It's also rather devoid of specifics though, when it comes to military/defense aid to Ukraine; it mentions

These initiatives and new commitments are part of more than $1.3 billion in foreign assistance the U.S. government has committed to Ukraine since 2014 to advance reforms, strengthen democratic institutions and civil society, stimulate economic growth, strengthen its defenses, and help Ukraine more safely monitor and secure its borders and defend its territorial integrity.

Nothing more specific than that generic "strengthen its defenses" and "safely monitor and secure its borders and defend its territorial integrity" in there.

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Politifact (Oct 2019): Matt Gaetz misleads about Obama's record on Ukraine military aid

The Obama administration refused to provide lethal weapons in 2014. The decision came as Russian forces invaded the eastern territory of Crimea in 2014 after Ukraine ousted its pro-Russia president. But the United States under Obama did provide extensive military and security aid but not lethal weapons.

So, while there was aid sent to Ukraine to support their military and security needs under Obama's tenure, this did not include lethal aid. As for why lethal aid in particular was denied:

U.S. officials were concerned that providing the Javelins to Ukraine would escalate their conflict with Russia. Key allies, including Germany, were not keen on sending weapons into the conflict zone, said Michael Kofman, an expert on Russia and senior research scientist at the CNA Corporation.

Basically, the situation in Ukraine was escalating into a war, and the United States and its Western allies did not want to add any more fuel to the fire. However, by the end of his term, Congress acted to authorize lethal aid to Ukraine.

The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which became law in November 2015, called for "lethal assistance such as anti-armor weapon systems, mortars, crew-served weapons and ammunition, grenade launchers and ammunition, and small arms and ammunition."

However, while the lethal aid was authorized by Congress while Obama was in office, this aid did not get sent out until Trump took over. I don't believe that the Obama administration was ever on board with sending lethal aid to Ukraine and had instead preferred to support Ukraine's military in other ways.

  • With respect to the second quote paragraph, do you have any quote of an Obama administration official (or the president himself)? I'm interested in their reasoning, whether it's for or against lethal aid, I'm keen to see what nuance they added. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Nov 16 at 3:40
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Dr. Fiona Hill, director of Center on United States and Europe at the Brookings Institute and former White House Russia advisor, has testified that at the first time of Russian armed invasion to Ukraine she opposed the release of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine because she believed that the Ukrainian army was not ready to use such a high-tech weapon. It took two years for her to change her mind.

Another point, Dr. Hill argued that if the United States provides Ukraine with powerful weapons, this could trigger an escalation of the war, forcing Russians to use even more powerful weapons.


I believe this article answers the entire question (markup mine):

Did Obama really send only blankets to the Ukrainians?

I watched hours of impeachment hearings and found Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee were focused on eliciting kernels that can be popped into slogans like,
“Trump gave them Javelins, Obama gave them blankets.”

The Trump administration providing Ukraine with anti-tank missiles has been universally praised by witnesses. In her testimony Thursday, however, former White House Russia advisor Fiona Hill qualified her support. Hill noted that during the Obama presidency, she had coauthored an op-ed article¹ opposing the release of the Javelins, because she felt the Ukrainian military “was not in a fit state to really take on board sophisticated weapons.”

Hill’s counsel of restraint certainly resonated. At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin imprudently bestowed surface-to-air missiles to his untrained proxies in eastern Ukraine. The result was the downing of a commercial airliner.

Two years later, Hill came to support the release of Javelins to Ukraine. The change came after she joined the National Security Council and learned from partners at the Pentagon that the Ukrainian military was now a competent, sustainable force.

Perhaps the more accurate slogan would read, “Obama laid the foundation, Trump took the credit.”

Michael Hawkins, Newbury Park


¹) This is the op-ed article mentioned above:

How aiding the Ukrainian military could push Putin into a regional war
By Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy
February 5, 2015

  • Okay, but was Dr. Hill part of the Obama administration at any time? What is the connection of your answer to the Obama administration? – JJ for Transparency and Monica Nov 27 at 2:38

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