As Russia becomes a hot-button issue in American politics, a former Pentagon official is urging the new Trump administration to pay more attention to the conflict in Ukraine.
Michael Carpenter, a senior Defense Department official under former President Barack Obama who dealt with Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs, described to VOA on Friday a six-point plan to support Kyiv in the face of separatist rebels backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"Fundamentally, we think this supports our interest," Carpenter said of U.S. support for Ukraine. His plan was also laid out in an article in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine.
Carpenter proposes U.S. support, funding and training for the Ukrainian military, further U.S. involvement in diplomatic discussions with European nations, and tightened sanctions against Russia. In addition, he says the U.S. should seek hard deadlines for implementing a European plan of action in the region covered by the Minsk Protocol, a plan for settling the long-running dispute among Ukraine, Russia and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The former deputy assistant secretary of defense also urged continued U.S. investment in Ukraine and encouragement for additional European support to develop democracy in Ukraine.
Call for military assistance to Kyiv
Carpenter focused on funding issues during his interview with VOA's Ukrainian service. He is a firm advocate of providing Ukraine with defensive weapons — a policy that has been sharply contested in U.S. political and military circles — not only for budgetary reasons, but also because of concerns that arming Ukraine would exacerbate problems between the Kremlin and Washington.
Military aid for Ukraine had been proposed in an early version of the Republican Party's platform — a summary of its principles and policies — at the national convention last year that formally selected Donald Trump as the party's presidential nominee. However, the proposal about Ukraine was deleted shortly before the platform was finalized, and in recent weeks there have been reports linking that decision to talks on the sidelines of the convention between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials, including Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The administration has not publicized any clear plan of action in Ukraine since Trump's inauguration. During the U.S. political campaign, Trump told an interviewer that the people of Crimea — the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 — "would rather be with Russia." He also indicated that he would, if elected, "take a look at" formal recognition of Crimea as Russian territory.
The current National Defense Authorization proposal for the next fiscal year, which begins in October, allocates $150 million for aid to Ukraine, less than half of the $335 million budgeted during fiscal 2017. Carpenter said the reduced amount for 2018 is not final, but he also pointed out that "in this environment here in Washington," cutting spending has been a high priority.
"If, in fact, Congress decides to cut funding ... I think that's very disappointing. I hope it doesn't happen," Carpenter said, detailing how much the Ukrainian military has benefited from U.S. training.
U.S. training has helped Ukrainian troops
"It's difficult to overstate how under-resourced the Ukrainian military was when the conflict began, and how far they have come since then," the former Pentagon official said. The Ukrainian military's improved skills, he added, can be attributed in part to U.S. training programs.
About 10,000 people have been killed and more than 20,000 have been wounded since the conflict in Ukraine began in 2014, according to United Nations estimates.
On the diplomatic side of Carpenter's plan, U.S. collaboration with Europe would be crucial, although hopes for such cooperation may be slimmer under Trump than they were with Obama, given the new president's ambivalence toward NATO. Even during the Obama administration, the U.S. was absent from the talks that led to the Minsk Protocol, which brought together France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia in a plan for a lasting cease-fire and more autonomy for rebel-held regions of eastern Ukraine.
"I'm no fan of the Minsk agreement. I think it was very poorly crafted," Carpenter said. "Nevertheless, it is currently the one diplomatic vehicle for resolving the conflict that all the parties are working from."
Now, however, he said it's "high time that we stepped back into it and simply told our French and German colleagues we are part of this process."
Tatiana Koprowicz of VOA's Ukrainian service contributed to this report.