This article originally appeared on The Wall Street Journal
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appeared before the U.S. Congress last September and pleaded for weapons to counter Russian advances. Afterward, members of his delegation sat down with two American supporters at a home in Georgetown. Why, the Ukrainians asked, was the Obama administration promising so much but doing so little?
Michael Pillsbury, a Pentagon consultant, and Gordon Humphrey, a former Republican U.S. senator, leaned across a white couch and whispered to each other. It was just like 1984, they agreed.
Few Americans have more expertise pushing a balky administration to battle an invading Russian army than Messrs. Pillsbury and Humphrey. In the mid-1980s, having concluded President Ronald Reagan wasn’t serious about arming the Afghan mujahedeen, they worked with Rep. Charlie Wilson to build the largest covert-action program in Central Intelligence Agency history. The Soviet army, stung by the advanced U.S. weaponry provided to local forces, withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed soon after.
Today, as the two Cold War adversaries face off anew, it is the Ukrainians who are desperate for U.S. weaponry and struggling to make sense of U.S. policy. Members of the coalition that prodded Mr. Reagan into fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan have reopened their 30-year-old playbook, this time seeking to pressure PresidentBarack Obama to punch back against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
This account of their effort is based on interviews with Messrs. Pillsbury and Humphrey and many others involved, including administration and defense officials and the visiting Ukrainians.
The two Americans explained to the Ukrainians the intricacies of American politics and weapons procurement. They ushered Ukrainian officers around the Pentagon, much as they did with Afghan commanders in the 1980s. And they helped Ukrainian-American groups lobby to create a Senate caucus modeled after the one Mr. Humphrey co-chaired in the 1980s, to press Mr. Obama to send arms. (Mr. Wilson, a Democrat who used his congressional role to appropriate money to arm the Afghans—an effort recounted in a book and a 2007 movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War”—died in 2010.)
New era, new battle
There are important differences between the two eras that cast a cloud over Ukraine’s prospects. Among them is a divided Congress’s diminished ability to wield the power of the purse to guide foreign policy.
“I’m not sure that Congress has reached the point at which it’s willing to really use the levers at its disposal,” says Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the Senate’s Ukraine Caucus.
Ukraine, with its modern army and pro-Western government, has little in common with the mujahedeen of the 1980s, except that both have had territory seized by a regime in Moscow and both have been outgunned. Much of the U.S. aid in the 1980s was covert, while efforts to support Ukraine are overt.
Administration officials say they are supporting the Ukrainians by imposing sanctions against Moscow and by providing nonlethal gear. They cite concerns that providing advanced weaponry could lead to a dangerous cycle of escalation, making matters worse for Kiev.
The legacy of the CIA’s role in Afghanistan remains contested. U.S. officials and outside experts often cite that covert action as a cautionary tale about the risks of intervention. In the chaos after the Soviet withdrawal, the Taliban rose and played host to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Messrs. Humphrey and Pillsbury say the cost of the war in Afghanistan helped bring down the Soviet Union. The mistake, they argue, was wandering U.S. attention after the Soviets left.
Messrs. Pillsbury and Humphrey first met in 1979. Mr. Pillsbury was a foreign-policy adviser to Senate Republicans. Mr. Humphrey was a freshman senator.
Many in Congress wanted to help the Afghans, but there was disagreement over how. Until 1985, the Reagan administration provided enough support to keep the mujahedeen in the fight but not enough to allow them to prevail. Messrs. Pillsbury and Humphrey say they found that position amoral.
As a Pentagon assistant undersecretary for policy planning at the time, Mr. Pillsbury became a behind-the-scenes champion for the Afghan cause. He teamed up with Mr. Humphrey, then the co-chairman of the congressional task force on Afghanistan.
The Afghans had initially asked for small arms and ammunition, Mr. Pillsbury recalls. He urged them to request advanced U.S. weapons systems. Mr. Humphrey used his position on the task force to press the Reagan administration to drop its resistance to sending surface-to-air Stinger missiles.
In March 1985, Mr. Reagan signed a new covert strategy. Afghan commandos carried out cross-border raids that shocked the Soviets. Stinger missiles started bringing down Soviet helicopters in 1986. Two years later, the Soviet army began withdrawing.
Mr. Humphrey returned to private life in New Hampshire in 1990, about the time the Soviet Union started to collapse. Fascinated by Russia and its language, he started visiting about once a year. He thought U.S.-Russian relations were moving in the right direction until Mr. Putin began consolidating power and cracking down on press freedoms. Then Russia annexed Crimea and began incursions into eastern Ukraine.
When the Ukrainian government started lobbying last spring for U.S. military support, the reception was cool, defense officials say. Pentagon officials weren’t sure they could give even nonlethal gear and intelligence to Ukrainian forces they believed were infiltrated by the Russians.
An early advocate for Ukraine was former Pentagon official Phillip Karber, who in 1985 co-wrote an influential Armed Forces Journal report that called for sending Stingers to the mujahedeen. In briefings to members of Congress and written reports on Ukraine, he repeated arguments he made in 1985: Draw a line to prevent Moscow from advancing further, and introduce modern weaponry to make the invasion more costly.
Thirty years ago, Michael Vickers, who stepped down last month as Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, was part of the CIA team that helped develop the agency’s strategy in Afghanistan. Last year, he visited Ukraine twice and emerged as an important voice within the Pentagon in favor of providing military aid, officials say.
The conflict in Ukraine stirred Cold War memories for Mr. Humphrey. He had lost touch with Mr. Pillsbury after leaving the Senate but found his contact information online last summer and sent him a brief email—their first contact in 24 years.
After some hesitation, Mr. Pillsbury agreed to check into Ukraine’s arms requests at the Pentagon, where he remained a consultant. He reported back to Mr. Humphrey: It was going nowhere.
The Obamaadministration was concerned that sending weapons would provoke rather than deter Mr. Putin, U.S. officials say. Intelligence analysts were cautious, having misjudged Mr. Putin’s intentions earlier in the conflict. The issue had no momentum in Congress.
Mr. Humphrey knew times had changed. “The Cold War is over,” he says. “And yet I believe that if there were a few determined members in each house, those weapons could be flowing to Ukraine today.”
Last Sept. 16, he emailed Michael Sawkiw, whose Ukrainian National Information Service is the longtime public-relations arm for Ukrainian-Americans. Mr. Humphrey told him it was important to mobilize the Senate and “volunteered his assistance,” Mr. Sawkiw recalls.
Mr. Humphrey flew down to Washington and watched the Ukrainian president’s Sept. 18 speech from a seat in the House gallery. He was moved by the appeal for arms.
That same day, he attended a vote of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on legislation that would authorize Mr. Obama to provide military equipment to Ukraine. In keeping with protocol, Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who at the time was chairman of the panel, recognized Mr. Humphrey’s presence in the room.
Mr. Humphrey stood up and said he had three words for the senators: “Please help Ukraine.” The committee passed the bill unanimously.
At Mr. Humphrey’s suggestion, Mr. Pillsbury agreed to meet with Lt. Gen. Volodymyr Zamana and other members of the Ukrainian president’s delegation in a Senate office. Afterward, Mr. Pillsbury invited the Ukrainians to his Georgetown home to continue the discussions over tea.
The Ukrainians had emerged from the Senate committee vote confident U.S. weapons would start flowing. “No. This is the beginning of a very long process,” Mr. Pillsbury recalls telling them.
Anatoliy Pinchuk, a member of the Ukrainian delegation, showed Messrs. Pillsbury and Humphrey copies of letters that President Poroshenko and his defense minister had sent to administration and military officials, including then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. In them, the Ukrainian defense minister asked for armored vehicles, antitank, antiaircraft and “other weapons of lethal action.”
Top U.S. officials never said “no” but never said “yes, ” the Ukrainian delegation told their American hosts.
The Ukrainians wanted to send aircraft to pick up U.S. weapons directly from surplus stockpiles in Afghanistan. Mr. Pillsbury told them the idea was a nonstarter.
After tea, Messrs. Pillsbury and Humphrey took the Ukrainian delegation to a nearby Turkish restaurant. Their waiter, who happened to be Ukrainian, recognized Lt. Gen. Zamana and called him a hero for refusing to deploy forces against pro-Western protesters in Kiev.
Mr. Pillsbury suggested Lt. Gen. Zamana consider requesting counter-battery radar systems and said Ukrainian officials should visit weapons facilities in Europe to educate themselves. Ukrainian officials later did both.
Near the end of their three-hour dinner, Lt. Gen. Zamana told Messrs. Humphrey and Pillsbury: “We have a high mountain to climb.”
Messrs. Pillsbury and Humphrey thought Ukraine had a better case to make than the Afghan rebels once had. “It’s a pro-Western government that wants weapons,” says Mr. Pillsbury. “It’s more legitimate than a bunch of guerrillas.”
In the weeks that followed, Mr. Humphrey met with about a dozen senators. He spoke to others by phone.
Messrs. Humphrey and Pillsbury urged nearly two dozen Ukrainian-American groups to band together to increase their influence. When they formed a committee to lobby for arms and for creating a Senate caucus, Messrs. Humphrey and Pillsbury became unpaid advisers.
Mr. Pillsbury took three separate delegations from Ukraine to the Pentagon to explain how the U.S. bureaucracy works.
In one December meeting outside the Starbucks in the Pentagon’s main food court, two Ukrainian colonels, both in uniform, reviewed printouts of the forms they would need to buy arms. They told Mr. Pillsbury they were baffled by the red tape. Thirty years earlier, the Afghan commanders he took to the Pentagon, dressed in sandals, were even more confused.
Mr. Obama signed legislation into law later that month authorizing military aid for Ukraine. U.S. defense officials then had to explain to their Ukrainian counterparts that Congress hadn’t yet provided money.
“We had to tell the Ukrainians, ‘OK, guys. I know this sounds a little wonky, but it doesn’t mean you have $350 million to play around with,’ ” a senior defense official recalls. An authorization, the official says, was “a symbolic gesture.”
In January, Ukrainian officials thought the White House was poised to provide advanced antitank weapons known as Javelins. At the time, U.S. officials said a majority of Mr. Obama’s top cabinet-level advisers endorsed the request.
In the first week of February, Mr. Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry had lunch with national security adviser Susan Rice. Ms. Rice told them the president wasn’t ready to provide the Ukrainians with Javelins and that she doubted he would ever reach that point, according to two officials. A senior administration official declined to comment on internal policy deliberations.
The Senate Ukraine Caucus was launched on Feb. 9. Co-chairman Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican whom Mr. Humphrey had lobbied to step up his role, followed up with a visit to Kiev in April to survey the country’s military needs. Other caucus members met with Ukrainian delegations in Washington.
Publicly, the senators voiced strong support for Kiev and called on Mr. Obama to send arms. Privately, several have told Ukrainian officials to keep expectations in check.
The latest legislation authorizing arms for Ukraine cleared a key House committee last month. But its unclear whether Congress will appropriate the money for the weapons or try to force Mr. Obama’s hand.
In Rep. Charlie Wilson’s day, lawmakers on the right committees had more power to earmark funds for pet programs. “Today, that is far more difficult,” says Mr. Portman. “The president is authorized to do it. He has the funds to do it. He ought to move ahead.”
Sen. John McCain, Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, disappointed a visiting Ukrainian delegation when he said of the Senate: “We have brakes but no accelerator pedal.”
After that meeting, Mr. Pillsbury tried to reassure the Ukrainians. “You are moving faster than we did in the 80s,” he told them.