- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2015

Faced with growing Russian meddling in eastern Ukraine, President Obama and his top-level aides are weighing the need for far more aggressive and militarized countermeasures than the White House has been willing to embrace.

Administration officials say publicly that the president still hopes the conflict can be resolved through a purely diplomatic and sanctions-based strategy from the West, but officials in private signaled Monday that a violent surge by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has the White House seriously reconsidering its ban on providing U.S. weaponry to the Ukrainian military.

The pressure to start sending American drones and armor-piercing anti-tank missiles to Ukrainian troops mounted with a report Monday by three influential U.S. think tanks, which asserted that as many as 1,000 Russian military and intelligence officers are operating in eastern Ukraine and need to be given a clear sign that “the West will not accept the use of forces to change borders in Europe.”

The situation is “not a proxy war” but a “literal invasion by the Russian armed forces,” said Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, which released the report in coordination with the Atlantic Council and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “For the West not to up the ante in the deadly game is to invite [Russian President Vladimir Putin] to continue to believe that the West is soft.”

The situation on the ground is worsening in eastern Ukraine, where precarious peace negotiations have faltered in recent days. Separatist rockets streaked across hills in the region Monday as rebels pounded the positions of Ukrainian government troops holding a strategic rail town while both sides mobilized more forces for combat, according to the Reuters news service.

“Conditions have deteriorated very, very badly in the last couple of weeks,” Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitoring mission in Kiev, told CNN on Monday.

Mr. Bociurkiw reported “long lines” of unmarked vehicles traveling to the rebel stronghold in Donetsk and an increase in indiscriminate shelling from both sides of the conflict.

Reports from the region said the main focus of the fighting is Debaltseve — a government-held railway junction once populated by 25,000 people that lies between the rebel-held cities of Luhansk and Donetsk. Almost 2,000 residents have fled in the past few days alone.

The joint think tank report called for the U.S. to provide $1 billion in military assistance to Kiev “as soon as possible,” warning that if Washington and NATO “do not adequately support Ukraine, Moscow may well conclude that the kinds of tactics it has employed over the past year can be applied elsewhere.”

“Of particular concern would be Russian actions to destabilize Estonia or Latvia, each of which has a significant ethnic Russian minority and both of which are NATO members,” stated the survey, signed by a host of former officials, including Michele Flournoy, a top Pentagon official until 2012, and retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, head of the Pentagon’s European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander until 2013.

The warning was issued nearly a year after Russia effectively annexed the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine and months after at least one senior Obama administration official proclaimed that Moscow was moving quickly toward doing the same in Ukraine’s east.

Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told Congress in May that Russian meddling at the time in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Slovyansk and Odessa was identical to the way Moscow precipitated its annexation of Crimea.

Although 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 such items as gas masks and radar technology but no missiles or other weapons.

Worsening situation

More than 5,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine’s violence, and reports say the separatists are recruiting more fighters to carry on the battle.

Congress gave Mr. Obama the authority in December to send equipment such as anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, but the administration has resisted doing so in the face of pressure from Democrats and Republicans. Mr. Obama and his aides have argued that such weapons would only intensify an already violent conflict with Russia.

“Arming Ukraine will escalate tensions with Russia, but it will do little to help the Ukrainian army — which is corrupt and in dire need of reform — to combat the insurgency in its eastern region,” Emma Ashford, a visiting research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, wrote on the institute’s website in December.

The issue of military aid to Kiev also could expose divisions in the Western response to Russia’s aggression.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a visit to Hungary on Monday that her nation will not provide military hardware to Ukraine and asserted that the war with Russia-backed forces “cannot be solved militarily.”

Mrs. Merkel said Western powers should continue pursuing negotiations and economic sanctions against Moscow as a way to resolve the conflict. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his country also will not provide weaponry to Ukraine.

The issue is likely to dominate discussions at the White House on Feb. 9 when Mrs. Merkel arrives in Washington to meet with Mr. Obama.

A senior Obama administration official confirmed to The Associated Press Monday that the president is considering lethal aid to Kiev but has reservations about the ramifications. Mr. Obama is said to be concerned about the Ukrainian military’s capacity to use the high-powered weaponry and about Moscow’s response.

“I don’t think anybody wants to get into a proxy war with Russia,” State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said Monday, adding that “our focus does remain on pursuing a solution through diplomatic means.”

Ms. Nuland pushed a similar message last week, saying the administration was reviewing the prospect of sending “lethal assistance” while stressing that “what we’re looking for is a de-escalation of the conflict.”

So far, however, “Putin seems to be bent on escalation,” Brookings’ Mr. Talbott said.

The report cited a “significant influx” of Russian heavy equipment into Ukraine over the past two months and said “NATO believes that a large number Russian military intelligence (GRU) and military officers — estimates ranged from 250 to 1,000 — are in eastern Ukraine as of about January 12.

“These officers serve as advisers and trainers to the separatists, as well as to the ‘volunteers’ and others from Russia,” the document said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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