House Speaker John A. Boehner and top Democrats and Republicans on all of the key security committees called on President Obama to provide lethal American arms to Ukraine, firing off a bipartisan letter Thursday saying Congress has already given him permission, and he needs to act soon to stop Russian aggression.
In stark language Mr. Boehner and 10 colleagues, including the ranking Democrats on the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and intelligence committees, said the president needs to understand Ukraine is a major geopolitical test for the U.S. — and one it is in danger of losing.
“It is even more than simply a component of a revisionist Russian strategy to redraw international borders and impose its will on its neighbors,” the lawmakers said in their letter. “It is a grotesque violation of international law, a challenge to the west and an assault on the international order established at such great cost in the wake of World War II.”
Congress last year passed, and Mr. Obama signed, a law allowing transfer of defensive military equipment to Ukraine. And this week Ukrainian officials delivered to the Pentagon and Mr. Obama’s national security staff a list of military equipment they could use.
But despite having permission, Mr. Obama has not taken advantage of it.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden spoke Thursday afternoon with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to commiserate over losses Ukraine has suffered from separatists’ artillery fire even with a cease-fire in place.
“The two leaders also expressed their concern about continued separatist attacks against Ukrainian forces and civilian areas,” the White House said in a readout of the conversation.
Mr. Obama has been reluctant to transfer arms, and his aides say he’s still pondering it and watching how the cease-fire agreed to last month is being carried out.
But the members of Congress said they can already see how the cease-fire is going, and it’s clear to them that Russian-backed separatists have abused the agreement to consolidate their positions, pushing Ukrainian forces out of the territory. The lawmakers said Mr. Obama needs to act quickly on arms.
“We understand these long-standing requests await a political decision from you,” the members of Congress said.
The 11 lawmakers said they understand Mr. Obama’s desire to work in concert with Europe, but they said rather than leading European heads of state to the right conclusions, the president is taking a back-seat approach.
“We urge you to lead Europe in challenging this assault on international order, lest our foreign policy be held hostage by the lowest common denominator of European consensus,” they said. “In the face of Russian aggression, the lack of clarity on our overall strategy thus far has done little to reassure our friends and allies in the region who, understandably, feel vulnerable. This needs to change.”
Some analysts have predicted that providing lethal arms to Ukraine will only spur a more emphatic response from Russia, which is backing separatists in the eastern part of the former Soviet republic, and Mr. Obama views his decision on arms as a balancing act.
“We are giving a significant amount of nonlethal security support [and] defensive weapons to the Ukrainians. The issue is whether to increase the lethality. The issue is the kinds of systems,” Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told the House on Wednesday. “On the one hand, it goes to the Ukrainian need and desire to defend against the incredibly lethal offensive things that Russia has put in since January, February; on the other side it goes to whether this actually serves to harden or whether it escalates and is considered provocative and makes it worse.”
Mr. Obama’s top military advisers, though, have weighed in favoring providing lethal aid.
“If Russia wants to take Ukraine, it’s going to take it because [of] its geographic proximity and the size,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey told the Senate this week. “On the other hand there are some capability gaps that put the Ukraine forces at a real disadvantage. And I think we ought to look for opportunities to provide those capabilities so that, on the chance that the Russians are actually telling the truth, which, frankly I doubt very much, that the separatists and the sovereign state of Ukraine can compete on a level playing field.”
Members of Congress said the stakes go beyond Ukraine, and include the Baltic countries that are part of NATO. An attack on them would trigger NATO’s pact that requires all member countries to step up in defense.