White House Reconsiders Arms for Ukraine

White House Reconsiders Arms for Ukraine
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President Obama and his foreign policy team are assessing whether to change course to help arm Ukraine in a continuing bloody conflict with Russia, the White House confirmed Monday.

The administration’s reappraisal of the pros and cons of defensive military help signaled increasing anxiety that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to press forward, rather than retreat in the face of international isolation.

But the president’s spokesman defended as effective the international economic sanctions imposed on Russia. The president’s advisers said internal deliberations about providing lethal military aid to Ukraine fighters should not be viewed as a concession that diplomatic punishments designed to force Putin to rethink aggression have failed.

The New York Times reported Monday that Obama’s advisers are revisiting the option of furnishing arms to Ukraine.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will discuss the situation with the president at the White House Feb. 9. Over the weekend, Germany and Hungary ruled out selling weapons to Ukraine.

“For my part, I can say that Germany won’t support Ukraine with weapons,” Merkel said in Budapest on Sunday. “I’m firmly convinced that this conflict cannot be solved by military means.”

Asked to describe Obama’s thinking, his spokesman expressed irritation that unnamed administration and NATO officials spoke to the media in advance of any decisions.

The president's view continues to be that this administration needs to be continually assessing what our strategy is to further isolate the Putin regime in Russia to convince them to re-evaluate their strategy in Ukraine,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.

The sanctions regime “has succeeded in uniting the international community” and is squeezing Russia’s economy, but “it has not caused him at this point to live up to the kind of diplomatic commitments that he's previously made to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. So, for that reason, we're continually assessing what sort of options are available,” Earnest continued.

The White House argued the United States has helped the Ukrainian military with non-lethal aid, but again rejected the notion that ending violence with Russia depended on sending weapons and armored vehicles to Ukraine. Nonetheless, the president’s advisers did not rule out taking additional steps, including more U.S. sanctions on Russia, “to ramp up the pressure,” National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes told CNN.

“Russia is isolated” globally, he repeated.

To date, Obama has rejected being drawn into military commitments to Ukraine that might escalate Putin’s aggression without ensuring that Ukraine can defend itself or achieve a peaceful solution in the wake of what began as Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year.

But rising violence in Ukraine and Putin’s intransigence propelled a coalition of U.S. experts largely sympathetic to the administration to call Monday for a U.S. and NATO policy change, specifically $3 billion in lethal and non-lethal assistance to Kiev over three years. The report said Ukrainian fighters are in a “perilous state” while the United States and European partners wait for economic sanctions to alter Moscow’s behavior.

In fact, the experts who offered their analyses sounded dubious that Putin will retreat from a worsening crisis.

The stakes as Ukraine teeters, the authors wrote, go beyond its territory: “Should we not act more robustly, we can expect to face further Russian incursions, possibly including attempts to redraw borders elsewhere, and efforts to intimidate former Soviet states into accepting Russian dominance.”

Specifically, the report’s authors advocate sending Ukraine “light anti-armor missiles, given the large numbers of armored vehicles that the Russians have deployed in Donetsk and Luhansk and the abysmal condition of the Ukrainian military’s light anti-armor weapons.”

Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Kiev on Thursday.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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