KHARKIV, Ukraine—Ukraine is ramping up its defense industry at a Soviet-era tank factory here near Europe’s deadly front line with Russia, as officials wonder what the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump will mean for their country.
Ukrainian officials say support from the U.S. and other allies is critical to bring its military into the 21st century as Ukrainian troops fight Moscow-backed separatists in the east. But officials also harbor little hope that Mr. Trump will deliver the high-tech weaponry Kiev couldn’t wrangle from the Obama administration.
Since Russia took over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and the pro-Russian rebellion erupted, Ukrainian leaders have lobbied Washington and European allies for better weapons.
“Every day we pay for the absence of modern technology with the lives of service members,” said Iryna Friz, a member of the national security and defense committee in Ukraine’s parliament.
Requests have largely been rebuffed by allies wary of stoking the conflict and provoking an escalatory response from Moscow.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday he believes U.S. support for Ukraine would continue under the incoming administration.
Czech Gen. Petr Pavel, the chairman of NATO’s military committee, said on Wednesday that he didn’t expect “a change of course towards Ukraine” by the U.S. He said NATO was continuing to provide assistance to Ukraine to help reorganize and improve its military forces.
The Pentagon has in the past prepared plans for stepping up military assistance to Ukraine, and officials said those plans could be presented to the new administration. Some of Mr. Trump’s cabinet appointees have backed additional support for Ukraine.
Yet some U.S. military officials have said that Mr. Trump’s comments about seeking a new relationship with Russia or easing sanctions—some of which were imposed on Moscow in response to its annexation of Crimea—could indicate a change in how the U.S. approaches the conflict in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, sparks fly from welding torches as workers here in Kharkiv upgrade Kiev’s tank fleet with new turrets, an improved main gun and better armor to stand up to more-sophisticated Russian armaments.
“We have no other options,” said Yehor Bozhok, the acting head of Ukraine’s mission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “We have to do it on our own.”
A tenuous peace agreement was reached in 2015, but there are frequent violations of the cease-fire, leading to deaths and injuries on both sides.
There has been a “massive upsurge in violence” recently, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said this month. Ukrainian military officials said separatists were using heavy weapons, such as artillery, prohibited by the peace deal.
The U.N. estimates more than 9,733 people, civilians and combatants have died in the conflict. Kiev says more than 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed.
A U.S. official said Russia has continued to upgrade its equipment and bases near the Ukrainian border, moving in additional tanks and other heavy weaponry. “They are strengthening their infrastructure and force posture near Ukraine,” said the U.S. official. “The strategy is designed to keep Ukraine on its heels.”
Kiev contends the Russian military has tanks and other heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine, and estimates there are 55,000 Russian troops on their borders.
Russian officials denied they have troops in Ukraine. Moscow says the Ukrainian government has made no progress on political elements of the 2015 peace agreement and has repeatedly violated the cease-fire.
One of Ukrainian generals’ biggest fears is a renewed Russian offensive using tanks. Among Ukraine’s top requests have been more advanced air-defense radar and U.S. Javelin antitank missiles.
The U.S. military has emphasized Ukrainian solutions, like the tank-refurbishment program. American military advisers also provide training for Ukrainian officers and troops.
“The best way to kill a tank is with another tank,” said U.S. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. “So the best antitank system is one of their tanks.”
Malyshev Works started making tanks for the Soviet Red Army in 1928 and is famous for its production of the T-34 tank that helped the allies win World War II. Today the factory—with workers with as many as 50 years’ experience—modernizes T-64 tanks for the Ukraine military and manufactures new T-84 tanks for export to Thailand.
Gen. Hodges and other U.S. military officials toured the factory shortly before the U.S. election to learn whether it could be scaled up to produce more equipment for the Ukrainian army more quickly.
U.S. officials said they have been impressed with the Ukrainian military’s technological know-how and ability to quickly apply lessons from the front lines to upgrade their equipment.
The Ukrainians are also developing their own unmanned vehicles and aerial drones.
Roman Romanov, the director general of UkroBoronProm, the state-owned defense company, said Ukraine’s industry is very capable. “We have bright people, we have good technologies…. But we need Western companies and Western partners to become more effective.”
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