How Ukraine’s involvement in U.S. politics could affect its long war

AMNA NAWAZ: We have heard much tonight about
the central political importance of Ukraine to the impeachment inquiry. But that country is also at war with Russian-backed
separatists. It’s been five-and-a-half brutal years of
conflict. So how does the political upheaval here echo
on the front lines of Europe’s only country at war? Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky went
to the front lines to find out. SIMON OSTROVSKY: While the stakes of the bitter
political fight being fought over impeachment in Washington may seem high, here, on the
outskirts of Donetsk, where Ukraine is fighting an actual shooting war, the stakes are far
higher. The war in Ukraine has dragged on for five
years, and it’s killed more than 13,000 people. It is fought in trenches like this one that
stretch for hundreds of kilometers through Eastern Ukraine. But it was largely forgotten by the outside
world, until it became the backdrop for the impeachment inquiry into President Donald
Trump. Until Mr. Trump took office, Ukraine enjoyed
unwavering bipartisan U.S. support in its conflict with Russia, which invaded and annexed
Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014. The annexation was the biggest land grab in
Europe since World War II and sparked a war in Eastern Ukraine, where Russia and its separatist
allies have taken control of parts of the country’s eastern industrial heartland known
as the Donbass. Kiev only barely managed to prevent pro-Russia
forces from totally overrunning the country, thanks to the U.S. and its allies, who imposed
an economically damaging set of sanctions on Moscow. BARACK OBAMA, Former President of the United
States: We’re united in our support for Ukraine. We’re united in our determination to isolate
Russia and impose costs for Russia’s actions. SIMON OSTROVSKY: The threat of further sanctions
if Russia pushed on have stayed the Kremlin’s hand so far. Fast-forward to 2019, and several top U.S.
officials are alleging that President Trump blocked crucial military aid to the country
over the summer to try to get Kiev to open investigations into his American political
rival. Throughout its campaign against Russia’s occupation
of the lands that are just a few hundred yards that way, Ukraine has relied on the United
States for both military and diplomatic support. In July, the White House suddenly suspended
nearly $400 million in aid, causing its Ukrainian allies to question America’s resolve. The aid included night-vision scopes like
this one and first aid kits, which members of Ukraine’s 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade
showed “NewsHour.” But the scope of the assistance is much wider
and seeks to modernize Ukraine’s armed forces by providing more capable small arms, like
new sniper rifles and grenade launchers, radars, vehicles and tactical communication equipment. It also pays for advisers and high-tech training
simulators. MAN (through translator): Here, take a look. A flag. Look at the hill behind the lake. It stands out in the light. That’s the DNR flag. Might be the Russian flag. SIMON OSTROVSKY: And though the White House
eventually did release the aid to Ukraine under concerted congressional pressure in
September, the political damage was felt both in Kiev and here on the front lines. Private Alexei Machankoladze, who’s served
in Ukraine’s army as part of the 92nd Brigade for three years, worries that the diplomatic
support his country has relied on is disappearing. PFC. ALEXEI MACHANKOLADZE, 92nd Separate Motorized
Brigade (through translator): Under Obama, they pressured them with sanctions. As soon as something happened, the pushed
sanctions. Not anymore. No one is pressuring Russia with sanctions. And Russia is 100 percent using this situation. Trump has just let Russia off the hook a bit. SIMON OSTROVSKY: The scandal has damaged Ukraine’s
interests in another way too. After winning a landslide election with 73
percent of the vote earlier this year, Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, entered
negotiations to de-escalate hostilities with Russia from a position of strength. But as President Trump and an array of associates
led by his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani began making political demands of Zelensky’s administration,
cracks in the U.S.-Ukrainian alliance started becoming apparent. RUDY GIULIANI, Attorney for President Donald
Trump: There is a load of evidence that the Ukrainians created false information. SIMON OSTROVSKY: In his meeting with Zelensky
at the United Nations, Trump responded to a question about military aid to Ukraine by
telling Zelensky it was up to him to figure it out with Russian President Vladimir Putin. DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem. That would be a tremendous achievement. SIMON OSTROVSKY: State television in Russia
jumped on the comment, interpreting it as a signal that the U.S. was throwing Ukraine
under the bus. WOMAN (through translator): After his triumphant
meeting with Donald Trump, in quotes of course, the Ukrainian president had to lie back and
enjoy it. We know what happened in the United States. You have nowhere left to go. SIMON OSTROVSKY: On the front lines, the soldiers
of Ukraine’s 92nd are skeptical Russia will hold to the terms of any agreement. Do you think that, without the strong support
of the United States, Ukraine can get a fair peace deal with Russia? PFC. ALEXEI MACHANKOLADZE (through translator):
I think not, no. If, for example, America and Europe don’t
help, I think Russia will push forward. They won’t just occupy this area. It’ll be like Crimea. They will invade. SIMON OSTROVSKY: Zelensky has nevertheless
pushed forward with a controversial plan to move troops away from the front lines in certain
sectors. The idea is that if soldiers can’t see the
enemy, they will be less likely to engage and casualties will drop. Veteran groups see the plan as capitulation
to Russia, and thousands have marched in street protests to oppose it, illustrating the challenges
for Zelensky on the domestic front. But the biggest challenge is not only the
toll in lives lost, but in lives ruined. Serhiy Shevchenko showed “NewsHour” how he’s
reinforced the windows of his home, which were blown out for the eighth time in a recent
mortar attack. SERHIY SHEVCHENKO, Ukraine (through translator):
It used to be called Forest Street. Now I call it Dead Street. This is the most ruined street in Avdiivka. SIMON OSTROVSKY: Although the U.S. has not
contributed any troops to Ukraine in combat roles, it continues to train the Ukrainian
military at exercises like this one. Ukraine, on the other hand, has sent its troops
to fight and to die in the U.S.-led mission to Iraq. It’s something that U.S. Army Colonel David
Jordan of the 45th Infantry brought up at a ceremony dedicated to members of Ukraine’s
92nd who were undergoing a U.S. training course in 2017. COL. DAVID JORDAN, U.S. Army: Like the 45th, the
92nd has served in combat in Iraq. Our shared experiences will help us form a
bond of trust. SIMON OSTROVSKY: I asked this member of the
92nd serving in a trench on the front line if he felt that that bond of trust had now
been broken. JR. SGT. OLEH RYZHOV, 92nd Separate Motorized Brigade
(through translator): We value the U.S. support and hope that it continues. Whatever happens, we will continue to defend
our lands. Our morale is high, so we’re not feeling down
and we won’t fall. And that’s that. SIMON OSTROVSKY: On the front lines in Eastern
Ukraine, I’m Simon Ostrovsky for the “PBS NewsHour.”

Maurice Vega

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