- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2015

The Obama administration said Friday that it is still weighing whether to provide U.S. weapons to Ukraine’s military and that the success or failure of a delicate peace deal reached this week to end the nation’s conflict with Russia-backed separatists will affect the calculus of the decision.

Administration officials said they believed the Russian military was still moving “tanks and missile systems” across the border into eastern Ukraine, even as violence surged between Ukrainian forces and the separatists ahead of a Sunday morning cease-fire agreed to under this week’s deal.

“Russian units along the border with Ukraine are preparing a large shipment of supplies to pro-Russian forces fighting in eastern Ukraine,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters in Washington on Friday afternoon. “This is clearly not in the spirit of this week’s agreement.”

Analysts had predicted a spike in violence in eastern Ukraine Friday and Saturday as the two sides of the conflict seek to expand their lines before the shooting is supposed to stop at midnight Saturday. The Associated Press reported that clashes appear only to have increased since a peace agreement was sealed Thursday in the Belarusian capital of Minsk by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.

Following its passage, German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautiously described the cease-fire deal as “a glimmer of hope” in the conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people since last year.

In a joint statement Friday, leaders from Western powers involved in the G-7 said they “welcome” the peace deal, but are prepared to take collective action if the cease-fire fails to take hold with both Ukrainian forces and the Russia-backed separatists pulling back their weaponry from the conflict’s front lines in eastern Ukraine.

“All parties should refrain from actions in the coming days that would hinder the start of the cease-fire,” the leaders said. “The G7 stands ready to adopt appropriate measures against those who … do not observe the agreed comprehensive ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons.”

While hope for the cease-fire appeared to have been put on the back burner in what had been a growing debate within the Obama administration over whether to begin sending in American weaponry to bolster Ukraine’s military, Mrs. Psaki said Friday that possibility “remains on the table.”

“Obviously, we’ll be watching closely to see what happens over the course of the coming days,” she said.

Congress gave the administration authorization in December to begin shipping weapons to Ukraine. Domestic pressure to send U.S. drones and armor-piercing anti-tank missiles to Ukrainian troops mounted last week with the release of a report by three influential U.S. think tanks, which asserted that as many as 1,000 Russian military and intelligence officers are now operating in eastern Ukraine.

The report pushed by the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs — as well as by some former Obama administration officials — argued the weapons shipments would send a clear message to Russian President Vladimir Putin that “the West will not accept the use of forces to change borders in Europe.”

While Washington and the European Union have leveled economic sanctions against several Russian officials and companies, the Obama administration has resisted providing anything other than “soft” support to Ukraine’s military, sending gas masks and radar technology but no missiles or other weapons in the fight against the Moscow-backed separatists.

Pressed on the issue Friday by The Washington Times, Mrs. Psaki said the Obama administration’s “priority” is to see this week’s peace agreement implemented.

“If the cease-fire works and it’s being implemented, I think it obviously would calibrate what we would do,” she said. “But let’s talk about it and see where we are in a couple of days.”

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