Updated Mar 18, 2022 - World

Ukraine’s ambassador disputes letter asking U.S. for resistance support

Civilians are seen training in early February to be part of Ukraine's defense force.

Civilians trained with Ukrainian reserve officers before Russia's invasion last month. Photo: Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Editor’s note: This corrects an original version of this story that stated the Ukrainian government "asked" for additional assistance from the U.S. government, when Axios was unable to confirm the letter was actually sent. The headline and story were updated extensively throughout with comments received Friday from the Ukrainian ambassador in the U.S. who disputed the letter’s authenticity and from a former senior Ukrainian official who said they received it

Ukraine's ambassador in Washington on Friday disputed the authenticity of a letter bearing the signature of the country’s top national security official and seeking U.S. support for a long-term resistance movement, saying it was not transmitted through the embassy.

The latest: The on-the-record denial comes a day after Axios published the letter, which sources in regular communication with Volodymyr Zelensky's government said had been circulated in both the U.S. and Ukraine.

Why it matters: The dispute underscores the intense diplomatic sensitivities around questions involving arming the Ukrainian resistance, which Ukrainian officials believe is key to ultimately prevailing over Russia.

Officials at the White House National Security Council said they have no record of receiving the letter that carries the signature of Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.

  • Axios obtained the letter from a reliable source in direct contact with the Zelensky administration.
  • The letter also bears official letterhead and markings indicating it was an outbound message rather than simply a draft document.
  • Efforts to reach Danilov, who is based in Kyiv, were unsuccessful.

The Ukrainian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication of the letter. But, in a text message Friday, Ambassador Oksana Markarova told Axios that she believes the letter was “falsified” because all of Ukraine’s official communications to the U.S. government would go through the embassy.

  • A former senior Ukrainian official close to Danilov told Axios that they had received the letter from Danilov’s office, and that it was also distributed to Ukrainian American groups and think tank experts in Washington.
  • The official could not confirm whether the letter Axios published was transmitted to the U.S. government through official diplomatic channels, but pointed to an index code at the top of the document indicating it was an outbound message from Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.

Background: The document, dated March 6, asked the U.S. "to allocate additional funds for the organization of the resistance movement and voluntary formations of territorial communities throughout Ukraine."

  • It was addressed to White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and CIA director Bill Burns. Axios reported Thursday it could not independently confirm it was sent to or received by their agencies.
  • Prior to publication, Axios reached out to the NSC, the Pentagon and the CIA. All declined to comment on the record prior to publication. After publication, an NSC spokesperson told Axios: "We are in regular contact with the Ukrainian government, but have no record of receiving this letter and have not confirmed its authenticity."

Context: Ukraine's parliament last year codified a plan to fight back against a potential Russian invasion and occupation with its Law on the Fundamentals of National Resistance. It came into effect Jan. 1.

  • The law sets out the role of the Territorial Defense Forces, a reserve unit that supports the military, as well as irregular partisan forces and local volunteer formations comprised of civilians.
  • If necessary, the law would "allow for the involvement of the entire population of Ukraine in the protection of their homeland, their land and their families," Maria Mezentseva, a Ukrainian member of Parliament, tells Axios.

Between the lines: Throughout the current crisis, the Biden administration's policies toward arming Ukraine have been colored by legal concerns over whether certain actions could make the U.S. a "co-combatant" in the war against Russia.

  • The administration has attempted to walk a careful line by claiming it's providing Ukraine with "defensive" but not "offensive" weapons and "real-time" but not lethal "targeting" intelligence.
  • Some advocates for a less cautious approach point to the fact that Biden is now supplying Ukraine with drones, anti-aircraft systems and other sophisticated weaponry to argue the U.S. is clearly involved in the war.
  • That, in turn, means it should do everything short of deploying U.S. troops on the ground to help Ukraine, they say.

Training and equipping guerrilla forces in an active war zone, however, would cross a new threshold.

  • Politico reported this week the White House scrapped a plan in December to send a few hundred additional U.S. special operations troops to Ukraine to "provide military advice and training on unconventional warfare." The fear was it would escalate tensions.
  • Ezra Cohen, a former top Pentagon official in the Trump administration who specialized in intelligence and special operations, told Axios the president would need to seek congressional authorization to provide weapons to Ukrainian forces not part of the regular military command.

What to watch: Senate Republicans have proposed a $500 million "Ukraine Resistance Fund," which would authorize U.S. assistance to both Ukrainian security forces and "appropriately vetted Ukrainian groups and individuals" involved in defending the country.

  • A number of Democrats have expressed support for arming a long-term resistance, though the staunch fight Ukraine has already put up through three weeks of war may ultimately make that unnecessary.
  • "We have to be cognizant of striking the balance between preparing for next steps and setting in place the framework now, while also not neglecting the conventional fight that's going on as we speak," a Senate aide told Axios.
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