Ukrainian leaders pleaded Thursday with the Obama administration to provide lethal weapons to defend against a Russian invasion, saying that America promised more than two decades ago to protect the country when it gave up its stockpile of nuclear weapons.
“We’re asking you to fulfill the promises that you made yourselves,” Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, said on Capitol Hill through a translator.
The United States was one of the countries to sign the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in 1994. The memo stated that countries, including the U.S., would protect Ukraine from threats or aggression if Ukrainians gave up their nuclear weapons.
“I want to remind to the world and to the American people that 21 years ago, Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons,” said Alex Goncharenko, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament. “We gave up the nuclear weapons under the guarantees of the United States and United Kingdom. What will be the signal for the whole world if today when we desperately need help we do not receive it?”
Mr. Goncharenko spoke while holding a piece of shrapnel from a Russian attack on Mariupol, where he said many people were unable to protect themselves and died.
Ukraine fighters and Russian supporters have been fighting in eastern Ukraine, producing more than 5,350 civilian casualties, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said earlier this week. Additionally, more than 12,000 people have been injured in a sprawling battleground that includes bus stops, marketplaces, schools, hospitals and residential areas, he said.
The “dangerous escalation” in violence is “in clear breach of international humanitarian law which governs the conduct of armed conflicts,” Mr. Al Hussein said.
Congress has already authorized the president to provide lethal weapons, including anti-tank guns, to the Ukrainians in the annual defense bill that passed last year. While lawmakers said they don’t have immediate plans to introduce new legislation, they said they hope the latest round of calls for action will spur the president to action.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and 11 other committee members called Thursday on Mr. Obama to stop the slaughter of innocent people in Ukraine by providing them with the anti-tank weaponry.
Their demands for action come just as State Department Secretary John Kerry has arrived in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande and discuss a solution to the fighting.
Mr. Kerry, who said in a speech Thursday that the United States would not close its eyes to Russia’s actions, has yet to sign off on the delivery of lethal weapons to the Ukrainians, drawing ire from Mr. McCain, the defense committee’s top Republican.
“Right now, they have no ability to counter Russian tanks,” the Arizona Republican said. “That really makes for wholesale slaughter.”
Sen. Joe Donnelly, Indiana Democrat, worried that if America fails to follow through on its promise to protect Ukraine, it could embolden other dictators around the world and give other American allies less faith in the power of the U.S.
“What is the cost if we don’t keep our word?” Mr. Donnelly said.
So far, the White House has placed sanctions on individuals who might capitalize on the turmoil in Ukraine and sent nonlethal equipment to the nation, such as medical supplies, patrol boats and body armor.
The limited aid that the Obama administration has so far been willing to provide to the struggling partner nation is sending the wrong message to its allies, said Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
“If we can’t stand together on this, then what credibility will we have with any ally around the world?” the New Hampshire Republican said.
Lawmakers from other committees echoed those concerns.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN that he wants to see the United States deliver anti-tank equipment, radar systems and communications equipment to the Ukrainians.
The Obama administration has been reluctant to provide those items to Ukraine because it does not want that action to “inhibit the chance for a peaceful resolution” between Ukraine and Russia, the California Democrat said.
To date, the United States has committed $118 million in aid to Ukraine but has only expended about half of those funds, said Pentagon spokeswoman Air Force Lt. Col. Vanessa Hillman. Last month, the U.S. military delivered to the Ukrainians a couple of light-armored trucks, she said.
The military intends to send additional equipment to the country in the coming months as U.S. troops begin to train Ukraine’s National Guard, Lt. Col. Hillman said.
“The training, scheduled to begin in March, comes at the request of the Ukrainian government as they work to reform their police forces and establish their National Guard,” she said.