On May 10, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby appeared with Fox News’ “Your World” host Neil Cavuto to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Cavuto brought up U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine, who had asked the intelligence community to do some “soul-searching” regarding its mistaken belief that Russia would quickly overrun Ukrainian forces.
“What we missed was the will to fight of the Ukrainians ... and we also missed that in Afghanistan,” King had said.
In that context, Cavuto asked Kirby whether the United States could have delivered weaponry and other aid to Ukraine “months ago,” before Russia launched a multiple-front invasion on February 24.
Kirby responded that President Joe Biden’s administration had been “flowing in weapons well before the invasion.” He added that since 2014, when Russia first launched a proxy war in eastern Ukraine, the U.S. and allies had helped Ukraine’s military break from a “very top-down, rigid, doctrinal [Soviet-era]” style to one of “small unit leadership, command-and-control, operational maneuver.”
That prompted Kim Dotcom, a German ex-pat who’s facing extradition to the United States for allegations of racketeering and online piracy, to spread pro-Kremlin falsehoods to his 815,000-plus followers on Twitter:
“Over 14,000 civilians of Russian ethnicity in the Donbass were killed by US trained Ukrainian forces and the @PentagonPresSec openly boasts that they have armed and trained the Ukrainians for 8 YEARS. Who would have ever expected a Russian response?”
Problem is, Dotcom has it backward. The United States was long reluctant to give Ukraine lethal military aid, even as Russia fomented war there for years. And as to the claim that 14,000 civilians previously were killed in eastern Ukraine?
In fact, the 14,000 figure includes combatants and civilians, with combatants making up the majority of the deaths. Many of them were Ukrainian servicemen, and thus obviously were not “killed by US trained Ukrainian forces,” as Dotcom said. Nor were all of “Russian ethnicity.”
Dotcom’s falsehoods, however, do align with one of the Kremlin’s misleading justifications for its war — namely, that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine were being persecuted. This is disputed by Ukraine and many Russian speakers there.
Russian state media outlets have taken to amplifying Dotcom’s messaging about the war, as it often targets the United States for blame.
Dotcom, a German citizen residing in New Zealand, has for a decade fought extradition to the United States to face charges of copyright infringement, money laundering and racketeering in connection with his Megaupload file-sharing service, which the U.S. Department of Justice shut down in 2012. He denies wrongdoing.
But back to his tweet about U.S. aid and the 14,000 “civilians of Russian ethnicity,” here are the facts:
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, from April 14, 2014, to December 31, 2021, 14,400 conflict-related deaths were recorded in Ukraine. That includes 3,404 civilians, 4,400 Ukrainian armed forces and 6,500 “members of armed groups” – meaning Russia-backed forces.
The death toll for the Ukrainian military and Russia-backed fighters includes fatalities “resulting from imprudent handling of ammunition or weapons, road incidents, diseases, killings and suicides while on service in the conflict zone,” the U.N. says.
The United States did provide aid to Ukraine after Russia’s clandestine invasion in 2014, but only in reaction to Russian aggression, and not the other way around.
According to the U.S. State Department, since 2014, “the United States has provided more than $6.5 billion in security assistance for training and equipment to help Ukraine preserve its territorial integrity, secure its borders, and improve interoperability with NATO,” the U.S.-European defense alliance.
Since January 2021, the United States has pumped in $4.5 billion more to Ukraine to help it protect “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Biden has asked the U.S. Congress for $33 billion more, with USA Today estimating that U.S. aid to Ukraine “could hit $53 billion.”
The United States has long tried to avoid such an escalation, however, and only signed off on selling anti-tank missiles to Ukraine in March 2018 – roughly four years after Russia annexed Crimea and seeded the conflict in Ukraine’s east.
As the Voice of America reported at the time, Ukraine had been asking the United States for lethal military aid since 2014, “but the Obama administration offered only training and support equipment rather than contribute to escalated violence.”
While Russia long denied it was directly operating inside Ukraine territory, the Buk-TELAR missile system used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, was delivered to Ukraine from Kursk, Russia, by the Russian Army’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. (The subsequent crash killed all 298 people on board. Russia undermined the investigation.)
Ukraine maintains that nine Russian army battalion tactical groups intervened in the August 2014 Battle of Ilovaisk, leading to a large loss of life on the Ukrainian side.
Russia denied it, but researchers, journalists and open-source investigators have provided evidence that Russian combat forces participated in the fight. That includes documentation showing that military hardware deployed in the battle was only used by Russian military.
In December 2021, New Zealand’s top court ruled that Dotcom could be extradited, but the final decision remains in the hands of the country’s Justice Minister.