White House weighs sending lethal assistance to Ukraine

Peter Leonard
Associated Press

Washington – — As Ukrainian troops fought Monday to defend a strategic railway hub, Russian-backed separatists pledged to boost the size of their force and Washington pondered whether to expand its assistance to Ukraine to include lethal aid.

President Barack Obama has so far opposed sending lethal assistance, but an upsurge in fighting in eastern Ukraine has spurred the White House to take a fresh look at supplying Ukraine with such aid, a senior administration official said.

Since the unrest in eastern Ukraine surged anew in early January, the separatists have made notable strides in clawing territory away from the government in Kiev.

Their main offensive is now directed at 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 last few days alone.

The shift suggests the White House is growing increasingly concerned that its reliance on punishing Russia with economic sanctions isn’t doing enough to change President Vladimir Putin’s thinking about backing fighters in ethnic-Russian eastern Ukraine.

A senior Obama administration official said the president still sees pitfalls in plans to send defensive lethal aid to Ukraine, and a decision on the matter is not imminent.

The president’s worries about sending higher-powered equipment to Ukraine are threefold, according to the official. He sees risk in starting a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia, which the West accuses of supplying rebels in eastern Ukraine. He is worried that the Ukrainian military may not be well-trained enough to effectively use U.S. equipment and believes no amount of arms would put Ukraine on par with the Russian military.

Obama has weighed sending lethal aid to Ukraine before, but has always decided against taking that step. But holding fast to that position has left him isolated within his administration, given the support for sending the Ukrainians defensive assistance from high-ranking officials including Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove.

On Monday, several former U.S. diplomatic and military officials released a report calling on the White House and Congress to give Ukraine $3 billion in military assistance over the next three years.