As the political drama unfolds in America, Kiev remains a front line of the continuing struggle between Russia and the West. Ukraine is often seen as a laboratory for irregular Russian tactics, like using disinformation campaigns or deploying shadowy mercenaries abroad. Russia has used Ukraine as a “focus group” when developing these weapons, Evelyn Farkas, who was a senior Pentagon official involved with Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration, told me. As a result, Ukrainian intelligence services have found themselves on the cutting edge of Russian destabilization efforts, and they provide valuable information to their American counterparts. “Close ties with the Ukrainian intelligence community help us to be prepared and also to defend ourselves against what the Russians are doing,” said Farkas, now a fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
For example, Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service, the Security Service of Ukraine, has been aggressively monitoring the Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit with links to Russian intelligence. The Wagner Group started as a Ukrainian problem, playing a role in the early stages of the Moscow-backed separatist war, but eventually spread to Africa and Syria, where the mercenaries wound up fighting U.S. troops. Experts say that Wagner or a force like it could be deployed in other vulnerable places where Russia hopes to challenge U.S. interests, such as Venezuela or the Baltic states.
America also has strong relationships with the Ukrainian military, including the elite units of special-operations forces that America has trained and equipped since 2014, Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense responsible for Russia and Ukraine, told me.
“Ukraine provides us with a lot of intelligence on how Russia conducts hybrid warfare, which we aren’t able to glean from any other source in the world,” said Carpenter, who also worked as an adviser to Joe Biden in the White House and is a senior director at the Penn Biden Center, a think tank affiliated with the former vice president. The U.S. military-training program in Ukraine and liaison relationships with its intelligence services, Carpenter added, have helped the U.S. learn “not just what sorts of weapons systems Russia deploys in [eastern Ukraine] and what sort of tactics it uses but more broadly how it approaches full-spectrum warfare against an enemy.” This includes conventional and proxy warfare as well as political, cyber, and information operations.
Carpenter said these military and intelligence partnerships would likely survive any political turbulence between the U.S. and Ukraine. But Trump’s decision to freeze military aid underlined larger concerns over the strategic relationship between the two countries. “From the Ukrainian perspective, it threatens a broader potential break in U.S.-Ukrainian relations whereby the U.S. would no longer be the chief advocate on the international stage of Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Carpenter said.