Germany’s rejection of supplying weapons to Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian rebels may heighten the domestic pressure on a reluctant U.S. President Barack Obama to deliver the arms.
Increasing numbers of senior military and State Department officials are joining Republican lawmakers in a push to arm Ukraine -- an option the commander-in-chief personally opposes, according to three people familiar with the dynamics in the Obama administration. They asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who pleaded against shipping lethal military support in a Saturday speech at the Munich Security Conference, will brief Obama in Washington on Monday on the issue and the German-French push for a peace deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Secretary of State John Kerry said he’s confident Obama will make his decision “soon” after the meeting.
Obama’s delay in making his move until after Merkel’s visit reflects not only the gravity of the situation and the dueling arguments, but his emphasis on international alliances, his own deliberative nature and the degree to which he’s concentrated power on foreign policy in the White House.
Obama won’t authorize weapons deployment if Merkel signals that she won’t publicly condemn individual nations from arming Ukraine, the three people said. If she opposes any unilateral supplying of weapons, Obama will explain his decision to follow her lead by citing the importance of keeping a united front against Putin and the risk of triggering a proxy war with Russia, the people said.
A U.S. official who is also close to the debate declined to predict what Obama will decide after meeting with Merkel. The official, who also requested anonymity, added that Obama’s decision may prove to be one of the most important of his presidency.
The debate comes as the International Monetary Fund discusses a new financing package for Ukraine to plug its need for about $15 billion in additional financing and the Russian ruble plummets in value amid falling crude oil prices and the sanctions.
Merkel’s position “may be somewhat convenient” in enabling Obama to choose not to send the weapons, said Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is attending the Munich conference as part of a congressional delegation.
“I hope that’s not the case,” said Corker. “We had the same thing happen with the Syrian opposition: we cheered them on, our ambassador was out with them and we left them hanging.”
“I hope that the president and the administration has learned from that,” Corker said.
Senior U.S. officials who disagree with Obama’s reservations on supplying weapons to Ukraine have privately reached out to lawmakers, urging them to amplify their appeals to and intensify pressure on the White House to take the step, the three people said.
The officials highlighted to the members of Congress the importance of rallying as much public support as possible by more vaguely referring to the increased aid to Ukraine as providing that country defensive assistance, rather than lethal weapons, the people said.
An official with the National Security Council declined to comment on rifts within the administration on the issue, saying only that Obama values Merkel’s judgment and her focus on marshaling European support for economic sanctions that have been imposed on Russia and maintaining trans-Atlantic unity throughout the Ukraine crisis.
“The progress that Ukraine needs cannot be achieved by more weapons,” Merkel said in her Saturday speech.
Instead, she evoked the perseverance of the U.S. and European diplomatic efforts in confronting the Soviet Union during four decades of Cold War that ended with collapse of communism. That approach needs staying power and unity, said Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany.
“The problem is that I cannot envisage any situation in which an improved equipment of the Ukrainian army leads to a situation where President Putin is so impressed that he will lose militarily,” she said, reiterating the importance of a negotiated peace without military intervention. “I have to put it in such a blunt manner.”
Facing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the audience, she said: “There’s no way to win this militarily -- that’s the bitter truth. The international community has to think of a different approach.”
Poroshenko made a rebuttal in his own speech later in the day, arguing that the better-armed Ukrainian military will encourage Russia to accept a political resolution.
“The stronger our defense, the more convincing is our diplomatic voice,” he said, adding that his government wants only defensive, not offensive, weapons to counter Russian artillery, radars and tanks.
U.K. Defense Secretary Michael Fallon also rejected arming the Kiev government, citing fears of escalating the conflict.
Republican senators attending the conference expressed outrage at Merkel’s position and said weapons must be delivered to Ukraine regardless of what Merkel’s diplomatic efforts yield.
“She’s undercutting the ability of the Ukrainian people to have the best, last chance to keep their country intact,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters. “So can friends disagree? That’s what all this is about.”
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the head of the congressional delegation in Munich, called Merkel’s position “unacceptable” and “horribly wrong.”
“I know the Ukrainians; I know that they’re being slaughtered by the Russians with Russian weapons,” McCain said in an interview with German newspaper Bild-Zeitung.
McCain also told TV channel ZDF that German government seems as if “it has no clue, or it doesn’t care, that people are being slaughtered in Ukraine.”
The U.S. has so far committed to providing training and non-lethal equipment to Ukraine’s fight against the separatists in its eastern region, a conflict that began almost a year ago.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top U.S. military commander in Europe, Ashton Carter, Obama’s pick to be the next U.S. defense secretary, and a list of former U.S. envoys to Ukraine and NATO are publicly supporting arming Ukraine. “I’m very much inclined in that direction,” Carter said at his confirmation hearing before McCain’s committee last week.
Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden are increasingly associating with this group, termed the pessimists by the U.S. official who declined to predict what Obama will decide. The official used the term because of this group’s doubts that the U.S. and European economic and diplomatic efforts can alone deter Putin.
This camp has concluded that Putin is determined to reverse some of what he considers NATO and European aggression against a Russia weakened by irresolute leaders before he came to power, such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, said the official.
The group also thinks Putin believes it’s the U.S. and its allies that are weak now, bled by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing economic disunity within the EU and indecision about how to fight Islamic extremism.
The pessimists argue that it’s important to push back hard against Putin in Ukraine and elsewhere to prevent the conflict from escalating out of control, the official said. The debate over arming Ukraine masks a much deeper analytical split about relations with Russia within the administration and NATO, he added.
The official described another camp as the diplomats, which he said so far includes Obama, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande but few other U.S. officials outside the White House. It views Putin as a bully and not someone who would preside over an economic collapse. They believe he will ultimately respond to mounting economic pressure, perhaps coupled with a greater NATO presence in eastern Europe, the official said.
Some U.S. military and intelligence officials assess that Putin’s current strategic objective is a land link from Russia to Crimea through Mariupol, and that a major offensive against the port city of 500,000 is inevitable.
The recent push at Debaltseve, they said Saturday in Washington, appears to be simultaneously a test of the Ukrainian military and NATO’s response, a diversion from the real objective and a move to pre-position Russian-backed forces for a two-pronged assault on Mariupol from the east and north.
At the same time, said three U.S. officials who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified assessments, Russia has significantly stepped up the quality of some of the equipment it’s supplying to the separatists, especially communications gear, surveillance equipment and air defenses.
That move creates a new dilemma for the U.S. and its allies as they debate sending more and better equipment to Ukraine. Only the most up-to-date gear is capable of defeating what the Russian allies are now using in Ukraine, and sending such equipment risks it being captured or sold by corrupt or disloyal Ukrainians.