by Terry Atlas
US President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington on Jan. 20, 2015.
Washington policy makers are caught up in a debate reminiscent of the Cold War era: Should the U.S. send weapons to help an outgunned country resist Russian-backed aggression?
What type of military aid to provide Ukraine’s struggling government is being debated by foreign policy analysts and former diplomats as officials at the Pentagon, State Department and White House consider the risks of action and inaction.
Advocates for sending weapons got an unexpected boost Wednesday when President Barack Obama’s nominee for defense secretary said he’s in favor of it.
“I’m very much inclined in that direction,” Ashton Carter said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, a comment that drew a rebuff from the White House.
The issue is a particularly perplexing one for Obama, who’s known to ask aides “then what?” when presented with recommendations about military measures, as he did before calling off plans to attack Syria for using chemical weapons.
Moving beyond the current administration policy -- imposing economic sanctions on Russia and providing economic aid and non-lethal military equipment to Ukraine -- raises questions hard to answer with any certainty.
Efforts at crisis negotiations escalated amid gains by Russian-backed separatists, who have advanced around the city of Debaltseve, a strategic transportation hub in eastern Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with officials in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, on Thursday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were to stop there as well to discuss a new initiative before going to Moscow on Friday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
So far, the Obama administration has played down the possibility of sending weapons, a move that could ratchet up tensions with Putin as fighting intensifies in a conflict that already has cost more than 5,000 lives. It also risks undercutting criticism of Putin by the U.S. and allies for arming the rebels.
“Providing additional military assistance could and is likely to have the effect of increasing the bloodshed,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday, responding to a report that the president’s aides were giving the question a fresh look.
Then Carter’s statement the next day drew a curt response. “A decision like this will be made by the commander in chief,” Earnest said at a press briefing. “The president will certainly take that advice into account.”
Ukraine has asked the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany, for military training and equipment, including munitions, armored vehicles, access to surveillance drones and radar to warn of artillery attacks, as well as financial aid, Deputy Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko said in an interview in Washington on Jan. 29.
“We’re asking the world, ‘Can you help us with weapons?’” he said. “We don’t want the conflict to be escalated, but we have to remind them we are fighting on our own territory, we’re not crossing the border.”
The U.S. already has supplied Ukraine with lightweight counter-mortar radar systems, night-vision gear, body armor and vehicles.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden planned to meet with Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko this weekend in Munich to discuss the need to impose additional costs on Russia and boost Ukraine’s economy, according to a White House phone briefing for reporters on Wednesday. Merkel has rejected calls to send weapons.
Making the case
The U.S. is reevaluating its security assistance in light of the escalation in fighting and Russia’s significant resupply of weapons to the separatists, according to a U.S. official previewing Biden’s trip. The administration’s goal remains to find a diplomatic resolution to the conflict because a military one isn’t in the offing, said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
While Ukraine, the U.S. and their NATO and European Union allies say there’s ample evidence that Russia is providing military equipment and even troops to the separatists, Putin’s government denies it.
The case for lethal aid was pressed this week by a group of former American diplomats and national security officials, including former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer, former U.S. representative to NATO Ivo Daalder, former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, and retired Admiral James Stavridis, who served as NATO’s top military commander.
In Congress, a bipartisan group of 15 senators sent Obama a letter Tuesday saying that Russia aggression in Ukraine “must not be allowed to succeed. We believe it is time to increase military assistance to Ukraine and urge the U.S. and NATO to move quickly.”
The lawmakers called for sending “defensive” military equipment to “thwart Putin’s naked aggression.”
“Defensive military assistance such as antitank weapons, counter-battery radars, armored Humvees, and training are all critical to ensuring Ukraine has the capabilities to defend its territory and its citizens,” they said.
It’s not clear that Putin would draw distinctions about what qualifies as defensive weapons. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday accused Ukraine of opting for a purely military solution to the conflict, with U.S. support, and urged direct talks between Kiev and the rebels.
Sending lethal aid risks an arms race that Ukraine couldn’t win, said Sean Kay, a professor of politics and international studies at Ohio Wesleyan University.
“Advancing weapons into Ukraine is precisely the kind of evidence that Putin wrongly says justifies his illegal actions,” Kay wrote in a commentary this week. “There is every reason to believe that Russia would respond not with negotiation, but perhaps with more, and even deadlier, war.”
Obama remains unconvinced that providing anything more than non-lethal aid or limited and purely defensive weapons is wise, said an administration official familiar with the thinking of the president and White House national security aides.
Some administration officials argue that sending arms to Ukraine would destroy rather than promote attempts to devise a political solution, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations.
That said, the administration’s public line is an attempt to mollify both camps by weighing some increased aid without defining what’s being considered, the official said.
Any dramatic, public step to arm the Ukrainians would risk fracturing the fragile unity between the U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and in the EU at a time when unity is essential to maintaining or tightening economic sanctions on Russia, the official said. Sanctions, whose impact is multiplied by falling crude oil prices, are starting to exact a heavy toll on Russia’s economy and to separate Putin from some of his longtime allies.
The official also said it would take many months to decide on what aid to send, prepare and deliver it and train Ukrainian units to use it. One option, the official said, would be to provide Ukraine with some Soviet-made weapons from a CIA warehouse in North Carolina. The U.S. has done that in other countries accustomed to using that equipment, which generally is less complex and easier to maintain than American-made weaponry.
U.S. Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, said at Carter’s confirmation hearing Wednesday that he worries about the risk of setting off an “escalation situation” even though he favors sending military aid.
“In strategy and working on these international problems, you always have to ask yourself not the next step but what’s the step after that,” Carter replied. “As I consider what kinds of assistance we may give to the Ukrainian military, one does need to think two and even three steps ahead on this matter.”