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Withholding Ukraine Military Aid Cost Real Lives

Monday, January 27, 2020TOPICS: Faculty and StaffGlobal ImpactResearchHuman Rights and Security

In the first of two articles of impeachment, House Democrats serving as Impeachment Managers in the Senate trial have made the case that the President’s personally-motivated withholding of nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine rose to the constitutionally-established level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The basis for this argument is that such withholding undermined U.S. foreign policy by endangering a strategic ally in its own armed conflict with Russia.

Of course, the ramifications of military aid withholding may well ripple well beyond the direct effects on the armed conflict in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. They could include the reputational effects of such action on future American diplomatic efforts. They might well undermine America’s ability to broker future agreements like the 1994 entry of Ukraine into the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) on the basis of an American promise of military support for Ukrainian sovereignty. But the direct effects of the aid withheld by President Trump on the present military conflict itself are at the very center of the current impeachment debate.

Did the personal political scheme of a sitting U.S. president adversely impact the Ukraine conflict? The numbers suggest it did. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) describe over 1,200 battle deaths on Ukrainian soil resulting from clashes between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed forces (such as the United Armed Forces of Novorossiya) since 2018. Statistical models of temporal trends in fatalities over time explain about 87% of those deaths.

But the models become really interesting when three key milestones in the Ukraine scandal are included (see Figure 1). First is the date of the aid’s withholding: Colonel Vindman first learned of the military aid withheld by the Office of Management and Budget on 3 July. Second, the withholding became public knowledge by way of a Politico article that set a public relations scramble in motion on 28 August. Finally, OMB released the aid on 11 September.

Figure 1. Battle deaths in the Ukrainian conflict over the weeks before and since President Zelensky’s inauguration.

Figure 1. Battle deaths in the Ukrainian conflict over the weeks before and since President Zelensky’s inauguration.

Interestingly, since the aid hold and public knowledge of it did not coincide, it is possible to test their effects on lives lost separately. The former might be thought of the as the hold’s corrosive financial effect on Ukrainian military efficacy, the latter as the hold’s ability to embolden Russian forces or discourage Ukrainian ones.

The effect of the aid hold operating solely through financial constraints on the Ukrainian military was statistically significant, and resulted in the deaths of approximately five or six additional soldiers during the time it was in effect. Despite its profound political consequences for U.S. domestic politics, the publication of the Politico article seems to have had no statistically detectable effect on the numbers of battle deaths in Ukraine.

Perhaps five or six deaths doesn’t seem like much in a war that has caused over 1,200 battle deaths since the start of 2018 alone and in a country largely unfamiliar to many Americans. Moreover, statistical analyses can never hope to identify those who died as a result of the military aid withheld.

Nevertheless, those deaths were needless. They should not go unrecognized.

Topher L. McDougal is an Associate Professor at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, in San Diego, California.


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Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies


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