- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Facing criticism that his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is too timid, President Obama traveled to Russia’s backyard Tuesday to deliver another warning to Moscow, even as officials in Kiev said Russian soldiers are reinforcing major rebel-held cities.

Mr. Obama arrived in Estonia for meetings with Baltic leaders and a speech Wednesday in which he’ll try to reassure NATO members of the alliance’s promise to defend against Russian aggression under President Vladimir Putin.

At a NATO summit later this week, the president also will commit the U.S. to beefing up coalition forces in eastern Europe “to deal with the world in which they face new concerns about Russian intentions,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.

Mr. Obama’s response to the Ukraine crisis is just one aspect of a foreign policy approach that is drawing criticism from both opponents and allies who fear the White House is being too tentative in the face of global threats. He has resisted lawmakers’ calls to send arms to Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO.

“I think Putin has sized up the West and figured that the most difficult sanctions against Russia and the arms necessary for the Ukrainians to be able to defend themselves are not coming from the West, and we have to prove him wrong,” said Sen. Robert Menendez.

Mr. Menendez said Ukraine needs weaponry.

SEE ALSO: Obama inaction on Ukraine could impede nuclear disarmament

“They’re not in a position with the equipment that they have to go ahead and fight back,” the New Jersey Democrat told NPR’s Morning Edition. “So while we have provided night-vision goggles, that’s great. But seeing your enemy and being able to fight them are two different things. If a tank is coming at you and you’re firing with a peashooter, you’re not going to be able to stop that tank.”

Ukraine’s governor for the Donetsk region, now operating out of the province’s second-biggest city Mariupol while the regional capital is in rebel hands, described the Russian presence as an “invasion.”

Mr. Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have avoided that word, instead calling it an “incursion,” mindful that the Russian forces in Ukraine still represent just a fraction of Moscow’s potential might in the area. The White House on Tuesday tried to defend the president’s choice of words.

“What we have done is we have described their actions,” Mr. Earnest said. “There’s ample evidence to indicate that Russian soldiers have been on the ground in Ukraine, engaged in an effort to support the separatists, and in some cases even to attack Ukrainian military positions. This has all been a significant disappointment to the international community and to the president of the United States.”

Europe is growing more alarmed by the day at Russia’s actions. European officials proposed sweeping new sanctions Tuesday to starve Russia’s companies of capital and technology as punishment for Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.

“We need to respond in the strongest possible way,” said the European Union’s newly-named incoming foreign policy chief, Italian foreign minister, Federica Mogherini. “Things on the ground are getting more and more dramatic. We speak of an aggression, and I think sanctions are part of a political strategy.”

Western countries accuse Moscow of sending armored columns of troops into Ukraine, where the momentum in a five-month war shifted last week decisively in favor of pro-Russia rebels, who are now advancing on a major port.

In fields around the eastern Ukrainian village of Novokaterynivka, more than thirty army vehicles lay charred and pulverized into twisted piles of metal Tuesday — the result of a devastating weekend ambush by separatist forces.

The rout marked a major intensification in the separatists’ offensive in eastern Ukraine — one that the government in Kiev, NATO and the United States say has been sustained by Russia’s direct military support.

Moscow’s aggressive stance toward Ukraine has come in both words and deeds of late, fueled by attacks like those in Novokaterynivka as well as a leaked report that EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Vladimir Putin told him that Russia could take over Kiev “in two weeks” if it wished.

The separatists, after having a month of setbacks in which government troops regained territory, have been inordinately successful in the last 10 days just as columns of Russian tanks and armored vehicles have been seen crossing the border. Mr. Obama and other NATO leaders will be attending a summit in Wales on Thursday to create a rapid-response military team to counter the Russian threat.

“A huge amount of weapons are unfortunately crossing the Russian border. They (the Russians) bring them to Ukraine to bring death and destruction and they try to annex part of Ukrainian territory,” said Serhiy Taruta, governor of the Donetsk region. “So it is very difficult to qualify it any way other than as an invasion.”

Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security Council, said Kiev now must fight Russian forces, not just the separatists loyal to Moscow. He made the comment after the country’s defense minister said Ukraine’s armed forces are expanding their strategy from just fighting separatists to facing the Russian army in a war that could cost “tens of thousands” of lives.

Col. Lysenko told reporters that Russian troops were seen in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as other locations throughout the east. The claim could not be confirmed independently. He also said 15 servicemen had been killed over the previous day.

In Moscow, a Kremlin aide sharply criticized Mr. Barroso for breaching confidentiality when he quoted Mr. Putin as saying that Moscow could take over Kiev in two weeks if it wished.

Yuri Ushakov, the Russian leader’s foreign policy adviser, told reporters that Putin’s statement was “taken out of context and carried a completely different meaning.”

According to the United Nations, the war, in which pro-Russia separatists are fighting to throw off rule from Kiev, has killed more than 2,600 people and driven nearly a million from their homes in east Ukraine.

Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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