President Trump’s decision earlier this year to withhold military aid and diplomatic support for Ukraine ignored the consensus of America’s intelligence agencies, which had unanimously concluded that the East European country needs American help to resist Russian threats to its sovereignty, five U.S. officials tell TIME.
After Russia annexed Ukraine’s strategically important Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backed separatist forces that seized much of the country’s industrial east, U.S. intelligence agencies produced a National Intelligence Estimate on Ukraine. It included three conclusions, according to the officials familiar with it:
1. Russia poses a continuing threat to Ukraine’s territory, sovereignty, and economy.
2. In light of those threats, Ukraine needs continuing military, economic, and political support from the U.S. and its allies.
3. The country suffers from rampant public and private corruption that undermines confidence in the government, economic growth, and growing trade and other ties with Western Europe.
The Defense Intelligence Agency had the lead in drafting the Top Secret report, considered the intelligence community’s most authoritative assessment of a nation or issue, using information collected from spies, diplomats, U.S. allies, satellites, electronic eavesdropping, and other tools. The officials, all of whom remain in government service and agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because the estimate remains classified, work in four different U.S. intelligence agencies.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees intelligence community reports, declined to discuss the Estimate, but its main conclusion reappeared in the office’s Annual Threat Assessment, issued on Jan, 29 this year: “Russia will continue its military, political, and economic destabilization campaign against Ukraine to try to stymie Kyiv’s efforts to integrate with the EU and strengthen ties to NATO.”
Although it was completed several years ago, the officials say the NIE’s conclusions remain accurate. They are further reflected in the congressional testimony of U.S. chargé d’affaires in Kyiv, William Taylor, and other witnesses about the dangers of Trump’s attempt to withhold military aid and delay a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky unless Zelensky publicly announced an investigation into a debunked allegation that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Ukraine’s security remains fragile. The country has lost some 13,000 people in five years of conflict with Russian-backed forces. As Taylor testified before congressional impeachment investigators on Wednesday, Ukraine needs U.S. weapons, including counter-battery radar and sniper rifles, to deter further aggression. Withholding U.S. aid would be “crazy”, Taylor said.
Trump’s defenders note that while former president Barack Obama’s administration never authorized large government or private weapons sales to Ukraine, Trump early in 2017 approved the largest commercial sale of weapons to Kyiv since 2014.
Economically, too, the former Soviet republic is caught between Russia, which provides much of its energy, and Western Europe, where economic aid, trade, and possible admission to the European Union are still being deterred by the rampant corruption described in the intelligence estimate.
“One of the reasons why Ukraine is perceived as an existential challenge to the Kremlin, and why the Kremlin had to stop Ukraine from signing a trade agreement with the EU in 2013, was that Ukraine’s successful economic and institutional integration with Europe and the U.S. would expose the Kremlin’s falsehood that Slavic peoples cannot integrate with the ‘decadent’ West,” says Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Because if the Ukrainians can be a successful part of the West, why can’t Russians?”
Trump, according to Taylor, was less interested in combating the Kremlin than he was in demanding an inquiry into alleged corruption by former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a possible Trump opponent in 2020, and his son Hunter, who held a lucrative seat on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma while his father was vice president.
At the time the intelligence estimate was written, Biden, acting in part on its conclusion about pervasive corruption, as well as the representatives of European and international institutions, were pressuring Ukraine to fight corruption. Among other things, Biden pressured Ukrainian officials to remove the country’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, whom U.S., International Monetary Fund, and European officials considered ineffective.
Trump, however, has charged repeatedly that Biden sought to oust Shokin to quash an investigation into his son’s role at Burisma, an allegation that multiple U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said has no basis in fact.
“There is nothing in any intelligence reporting that supports charges of Ukrainian election interference or corruption involving Mr. Biden or his family,” said one of the officials. “Nothing even suggestive. The evidence that the Russians interfered is clear, as numerous officials have testified.”
U.S. officials, including two who have testified to congressional impeachment investigators, say that since he was elected, Zelensky has taken steps to address corruption, contrary to Trump’s assertion this month that “corruption is incredible in Ukraine”.