A team of Pentagon officials is heading to Ukraine to help the country rebuild its fractured military, a mission that lawmakers and analysts expect will result in recommendations for greater military assistance in the country's fight against pro-Russia separatists amid international outrage over the downing of a commercial airplane.
Within the next few weeks, a group of Defense Department representatives who specialize in strategy and policy will head to Kiev to evaluate specific programs that the United States may want to help bolster, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
Their objective is to work with Ukrainians to "shape and establish an enduring program for future U.S. efforts to support the Ukrainian military through subject-matter expert teams and long-term advisers," he said.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, offered qualified support for the plan.
"Clearly, we have an interest in what happens in Ukraine and it's far better to have an idea of where we can maximize any support we are willing to provide," he said.
The U.S. is moving to bolster Ukraine's defense infrastructure as Russian President Vladimir Putin faces increasing pressure to cut off support to separatists who have seized control of a swath of eastern Ukraine.
While the international community focuses on a response to the downing of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 over Ukrainian airspace, the country's armed forces have continued to press a military campaign against rebels who have largely retreated to two eastern cities and issued increasingly desperate pleas to Russia for assistance.
Mr. Putin, who showed little inclination to come to the rebels' aid with thousands of troops massed on the Ukrainian border before the airplane was shot down, has been preoccupied with publicly challenging the narrative that Russia carries some culpability for the assault on the Malaysian airliner.
The Russian president in recent days has called for a cease-fire in Ukraine and said he would press the rebels to cooperate with an international investigation into the incident, which resulted in the deaths of 298 people.
As U.S. officials disclosed Tuesday that they were nearly certain the rebels shot down the passenger plane with a Russian-supplied missile system, European Union officials went forward with increased sanctions on Russia for not acting decisively to de-escalate the Ukrainian conflict. Further and more severe sanctions were threatened if Russia does not quickly rein in the rebels.
While he continues to criticize Kiev for its counteroffensive against rebels in the east, Mr. Putin likely will "offer an olive branch" to deflect the political and diplomatic pressure his country faces, said Steve Ganyard, president of Avascent International and former deputy assistant secretary of state for plans, programs and operations in the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.
"I think that Mr. Putin is going to look for a face-saving way to avoid an international investigation that is going to show Russian culpability," he said. "And I think he'll come in and offer a six-month cease-fire and lots of things that are going to calm down international anger, and then six months later he'll be back at it again."
Even as Mr. Putin is increasingly pressured to conciliate the international community over Russia's support for the rebels, the Defense Department intends to begin looking for an innovative way to bolster the army of the former Soviet bloc country.
Steven Pifer, a national security analyst for the Brookings Institution, said the international incident should be a clear sign to the Obama administration that now is the time to supply lethal weaponry.
Mr. Pifer, head of Brookings' arms control initiative who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, said the Ukrainians need light anti-armor weapons and manned portable air defense systems to keep the Russians at bay.
"I want to make sure that the potential costs to the Russians in the event of a military incursion in Ukraine are as high as possible," he said.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has said the United States is past due in providing direct military support to Ukraine. In the hours after the downing of the Malaysian airliner, he criticized the "cowardly" Obama administration for failing "to give the Ukrainians weapons with which to defend themselves."
Mr. McCain told Fox News that the deadly crash warranted a weapons delivery from the United States to Ukraine so that its security forces are properly equipped to "regain their territory."
The Pentagon has provided Ukraine with radios, individual first-aid kits, sleeping mats, neck gaiters, jackets and body armor but stopped short of offering anything that the country's defense officials have requested that could be perceived as direct military assistance.
Over the next weeks to months, additional items will move through the procurement process, including night-vision devices, thermal imagers, helmets, explosive-ordnance disposal robots, and additional radios, Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said.
Defense Department officials say the equipment request list that Ukraine provided to the United States earlier this year is dated and "conditions may have changed." In addition, that list is not based on a coherent defense strategy, one Pentagon official said.
"It's important to keep in mind that one of the reasons we're sending people over there now to help them establish enduring programs is because they don't have enduring programs," the official said. "So two months ago, when they generated their request list, that list wasn't a result of a well-established defense strategy."
Paul Schwartz, a national security analyst who specializes in Russia and Eurasia studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Ukrainian defense capabilities "declined substantially after the Cold War" because of years of underinvestment. But he said the country's forces still have the capabilities at least to engage the separatists.
"After a slow start, the Ukrainian military has proven sufficiently capable to make inroads on rebel-held territory in Eastern Ukraine," he said.
Mr. Ganyard said it was unclear how successful the Pentagon team's efforts might be. Before the United States can begin to rebuild Ukraine's fractured military, he said, policymakers must decide what they want it to look like.
"What do we want them to be?" he asked. "Is it a force that stands on its own and can guard against all its borders? Or do we just want them to be able to defend themselves against Russia?"
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