- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2015

President Obama on Monday left open the door to providing lethal arms to Ukrainian forces battling pro-Russian rebels — a move that not only would signal greater U.S. involvement in the ongoing conflict but also may create a deep rift with key European allies.

Mr. Obama publicly signaled that he’s open to increased military assistance to Ukraine during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has come out strongly against the idea. Standing beside the president, Mrs. Merkel said the international community must give diplomacy one more chance, as she and other European leaders continue to hold out hope that Moscow will strike a binding deal with Ukraine and end its aggression in the region.

Mrs. Merkel and French President Francois Hollande plan to meet this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk. Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Hollande also met with Russian and Ukrainian leaders over the weekend, with the U.S. absent from the table.

As the European-led diplomacy continues, Mr. Obama is developing contingency plans.

“It is true that if, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options — what other means can we put in place to change Mr. Putin’s calculus — and the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined,” Mr. Obama said. But I have not made a decision about that yet. I have consulted with not just Angela, but will be consulting with other allies about this issue.”

Domestically, Mr. Obama has come under increasing pressure to provide arms to Ukrainian forces. Top Republicans have advocated the idea, and the president’s nominee for secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, also said recently he believes it could be the right course of action.

Even Vice President Joseph R. Biden hinted over the weekend that the current U.S. strategy, which has centered on economic sanctions to dissuade Moscow’s aggression, hasn’t had the desired impact.

Russia cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe. Because that’s exactly what they are doing,” he said Friday after a meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels.

And on Monday, Bloomberg News reported that Secretary of State John F. Kerry had told two U.S. lawmakers privately that he “personally supports sending lethal aid to the Ukrainian military.”

However, according to Bloomberg columnist Josh Rogin, “The White House, especially National Security Adviser Susan Rice, have been resisting, concerned that sending weapons will lead to Russian escalation.”

The U.S. imposed its first round of sanctions in March 2014 after the strategic region of Crimea voted to join Russia in the wake of a lightning invasion by the Kremlin. The U.S. and its allies have not recognized the outcome of that referendum.

Additional rounds of sanctions, including those on some members of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, have been levied after pro-Russian rebels continued to stoke unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Since April, more than 5,300 people have been killed in the fighting, according to United Nations estimates, and the violence has intensified in recent weeks.

Last year Germany and other European nations were slower to get on board with the notion of economic sanctions given their close business ties with Russia and reliance on its oil and gas. Similarly, Mrs. Merkel is much more reluctant to provide arms to the Ukrainians.

She offered a passionate defense of diplomacy during Monday’s press conference but also signaled that, if diplomacy fails, Germany may be open to more drastic measures.

“There is a possibility to try and bring about a cease-fire and to also create conditions that are in place where you [don’t have] everyday civilians dying, civilian victims that fall prey to this. And I’m absolutely confident that we will do this together,” she said. “I, myself, actually would not be able to live with not having made this attempt. But if, at a certain point in time, one has to say that success is not possible even if one puts every effort into it, then the United States and Europe have to sit together and try and explore further possibilities of what one can do.”

Analysts say the U.S.-Germany disconnect stems from a variety of factors, mainly that any escalation in the Ukrainian conflict would have a greater direct impact on European nations.

Germany and a lot of other European countries are physically closer to Russia. The risks of this going badly are much more proximate for them,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Meanwhile, pressure on the White House to take a harder line against Moscow continues to grow. Republicans on Monday bashed the president for refusing to act quickly and decisively, and for allowing Germany and France to continue what they believe is an ill-fated diplomatic strategy.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only continued, but intensified in the face of political and economic sanctions. Yet President Obama and Chancellor Merkel are offering a ‘more of the same’ diplomatic strategy that is doomed to fail,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.

“Defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine will not lead to Russia’s military defeat on the battlefield, and no serious advocate of helping Ukraine to defend itself has made such an argument. Moreover, no one in the United States or Europe believes there is a military solution to the crisis in Ukraine. The problem is that Vladimir Putin seems to believe there is. Until Putin is dissuaded of this view, a political solution will be impossible,” Mr. McCain said.

Mr. Obama did indicate that, if diplomacy fails in Minsk this week, he expects the U.S., Germany and other European nations to show a “strong, unified” front in dealing with Moscow.

While it remains to be seen whether Europe gets on board with providing arms to Ukraine, specialists say the move could have a real impact on Mr. Putin’s calculus.

“What a commitment to provide military assistance does is it makes the stakes of Russia continuing down the current path that much higher,” Mr. Mankoff said.


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