ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The impeachment inquiry into President Trump revolves around the question of whether he suspended U.S. aid to Ukraine to pressure that country to investigate his political opponents. This week we got a stark description of just how vital that aid is. The acting ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, spoke about it to congressional investigators. In his opening statement, he described visiting the front lines in eastern Ukraine, within sight of separatist fighters backed by Russia.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Taylor said, quote, "I could see the armed and hostile Russian-led forces on the other side of the damaged bridge across the line of contact. Over 13,000 Ukrainians have been killed in the war, one or two a week. More Ukrainians would undoubtably (ph) die without the U.S. assistance." NPR's Greg Myre has been looking into what exactly that U.S. assistance is and why it matters. Hey, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.
CHANG: So what kind of military aid has the U.S. been giving to Ukraine?
MYRE: So it's been evolving over the five years of the war. The Obama administration feared that lethal aid could actually escalate this conflict and lead to further confrontation with Russia. So it restricted its aid to nonlethal aid. Now, this included armored vehicles, Humvees, night vision equipment, radar equipment that allowed the Ukrainians to see when artillery was coming in, greatly reducing their casualties.
Now, the Trump administration is often criticized as being too soft on Russia. But in this particular case, Trump did take a tougher position than his predecessor and has been sending lethal aid - rifles, grenade launchers and, a weapon we've been hearing a lot about, Javelin missiles.
CHANG: Javelin missiles. Yeah, we heard about that in the phone call, the July 25 phone call between Ukraine's president and President Trump. What are Javelin missiles?
MYRE: So it's a shoulder-held missile. A soldier on the ground can fire it. It can take out a tank or another armored vehicle - so potentially quite significant in this kind of ground conflict that we've seen.
MYRE: The U.S. sent the first and only batch, which was 210 of these missiles, last year. And they got attention because President Zelenskiy of Ukraine mentioned them in this phone call, what we saw when the transcript came out. However, we need some perspective. This is part of this overall package. And these Javelins are not being widely used, if at all. I mean, the Pentagon describes them as defensive weapons, and we expect Ukraine to employ them for defensive purposes.
And I spoke with Mark Simakovsky. He was at the Defense Department, focusing on Russia during the Obama administration. Here's what he had to say.
MARK SIMAKOVSKY: This is not a game changer in terms of tipping the scales of conflict in one or the other direction. The Javelins is not the only system that somehow could rescue Ukraine from its current conflict with Russia.
MYRE: So he sees them as important, symbolically. They're showing the U.S. commitment, and they may deter the separatists. But he and others who've been watching this are not aware that they've actually been used.
CHANG: So what kind of fighting is actually taking place on a daily basis over there?
MYRE: So there is daily shooting and almost daily killing. Both sides are really dug in - I mean, literally, in trenches and bunkers. There's positions that they're holding. Not a lot of movement. These are mostly small-scale skirmishes but still very persistent fighting, as we heard from the diplomat, Bill Taylor, and others. Now, the Ukrainians - it's keeping them bogged down. They continue to bleed. They're having to spend money on the war that they can't spend on their economy. And Russia is - it has the effect of - it's keeping Ukraine from integrating further with the West.
CHANG: Is there any peaceful end in sight?
MYRE: There really isn't. The diplomatic movement is pretty stalled at this moment. And so this is why the U.S. aid and European Union aid is still considered important, according to Ned Price, who was on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. I spoke with him, and here's what he had to say.
NED PRICE: This is to send a signal that Russia cannot violate one of the key tenets of international affairs, and that is that big countries cannot bully small countries. Our aid has been an integral part of a deterrence against Putin's worst ambitions.
MYRE: So he said this controversy over the suspended aid this summer has not helped, sent the wrong signal to Vladimir Putin, that he could keep pushing on the Ukraine.
CHANG: That's NPR's Greg Myre.
MYRE: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.