Obama Urged by Former U.S. Officials to Arm Ukrainian Forces

Eight top former U.S. officials urged the White House to start sending lethal weaponry to Ukraine in its battle against pro-Russian rebels, adding to the pressure on the administration as fighting there has escalated again. Administration officials say they are focused on a diplomatic solution but are examining all options.

The call by the eight former officials came in a report on Monday that urges the administration and NATO to send $3 billion of military aid, including anti-armor missiles, to bolster Ukrainian forces over the coming three years.

An administration official familiar with President Barack Obama’s thinking said the president remains unconvinced that providing anything more than non-lethal aid or limited and purely defensive weapons is wise. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations, the official said such arms could destroy rather than promote attempts to devise a political solution.

Ukraine’s allies are debating how to help the government fight a separatist insurgency in the east of the country. A Ukrainian separatist leader ordered full military mobilization in a further escalation of the worst standoff between Russia and the U.S. and Europe since the Cold War. Since a September cease-fire, Russian-backed rebels, armed with tanks and armored personnel carriers, have seized 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) of Ukrainian territory.

“We continue to assess how best to support Ukraine,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan in an e-mail. “Although our focus remains on pursuing a solution through diplomatic means, we are always evaluating other options that will help create space for a negotiated solution to the crisis.”

The report, issued jointly by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, urges the U.S. to spend $1 billion a year for the next three years on military aid that includes reconnaissance drones, armored Humvees and radars to detect location of enemy artillery fire.

High Cost

“Assisting Ukraine to deter, attack and defend itself is not inconsistent with the search for a peaceful, political solution -— it is essential to achieving it,” says the report whose authors include Michele Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense. “Only if the Kremlin knows that the risks and costs of further military action are high will it seek to find an acceptable political solution.”

The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to visit Kiev on Feb. 5 to meet with Ukrainian officials.

Arming the Ukrainian military could risk fracturing the fragile unity between the U.S. and its NATO allies, and also within the European Union. The U.S. and the EU have imposed economic sanctions on Russia.

Russia plans to carry out military exercises involving its Caspian Sea naval forces, Black Sea Fleet air force and motorized infantry detachments, Interfax news service reported on Tuesday, citing Russia’s southern regional headquarters. Pro-Russian forces in Ukraine seek to call up as many as 100,000 people, Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the self-declared Donetsk republic, said Monday, according to the separatist-run DAN news service.

Lend Support

NATO’s military commander General Philip Breedlove may lend his support to some increase in military aid.

Breedlove “supports the pursuit of a diplomatic solution as well as considering practical means of support to the government of Ukraine in its struggle against Russian-backed separatists,” said Pentagon spokesman Gregory Hicks. “Russia must be part of a solution to bring peace and security in Ukraine.”

Opponents of arming Ukraine say that providing defensive weapons might tempt Russian President Vladimir Putin to increase his support for the rebels, even outright military intervention. So far, the U.S. has only provided so-called non-lethal aid, including body armor, night-vision goggles and first-aid kits.

Germany Opposed

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, remains opposed to any military aid.

“For my part, I can say that Germany won’t support Ukraine with weapons,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday during an official visit to Hungary. “I’m firmly convinced that this conflict cannot be solved by military means.”

The U.S. and the EU have threatened to expand sanctions against Russia for Putin’s support of the rebels, adding to restrictions imposed since the March annexation of Crimea and the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Donetsk in July.

Ukraine requested lethal military aid last year, said Tetyana Popova, an adviser to Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak, without revealing the types of weapons needed.

“One shouldn’t expect the U.S. to send modern weapons to Ukraine, like the Javelin antitank missile,” said Mykhaylo Samus, head of the Prague office of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies. “These weapons could be seized by Russian troops and used for adopting the latest U.S. military technologies.”

5,000 Dead

Fighting between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels intensified last month, wrecking a September truce and pushing the death toll beyond 5,000, according to the United Nations.

Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies accuse Russia of supporting the rebels with hardware, cash and thousands of troops, accusations the Kremlin has repeatedly denied. Russia says the government in Kiev is waging war against its own citizens and discriminating against Russian speakers, who make up the majority of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

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