Pressure grows for Obama to arm Ukraine

Pressure grows for Obama to arm Ukraine
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Senior Democrats are pressing President Obama to announce increased military aid for Ukraine when that country's leader visits Washington next week.

The lawmakers want the U.S. to provide lethal aid, including ammunition and small arms, to Ukraine’s military in the wake of Russia’s recent incursions into the country. They also want to green-light training for Kiev’s troops.

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will be in Washington on Thursday. He will speak to a joint session of Congress that morning and meet with Obama in the afternoon, according to the Ukrainian embassy.

Many Republicans have long pushed for lethal aid to Ukraine but a growing number of lawmakers from the president’s own party are joining those calls. They believe Poroshenko’s visit can help ramp up pressure on the administration.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who visited Ukraine earlier this month, said Poroshenko’s visit would be a “good opportunity” for Obama to change his long-held position that there is no military solution to the conflict between Kiev and Moscow.

“I hope that our president will make some kind of supportive announcement relative to training and equipping at that time,” said Levin. The senator has been pushing for weeks to arm Ukraine.

“The decision, ultimately, is going to be made the president, in any event,” he told The Hill.

Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. should offer equipment to help that country’s ground forces, including as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.

But the administration is not budging on providing lethal military aid. 

"We do not see a military solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine," a State Department spokeswoman said.

Ukraine has also made its own requests for military equipment from the U.S., including, it is believed, lethal weapons.

“Ukraine has made a variety of requests for different types of aid, and Ukraine’s partners are reviewing all of them to see how best to further support Ukraine,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden, in a statement to The Hill.

“We are proud to have already committed nearly $70 million, including items like body armor, communications equipment, meals ready-to-eat, and medical supplies,” she added. “This assistance has and will help the Ukrainians sustain operations by their security forces and border guards to respond to aggression.”

The Obama administration has also touted its sanctions in concert with the European Union to target key sectors of Russia’s economy, arguing that it will restrain Moscow’s aggression. Obama has also vowed more penalties if Russian President Vladimir Putin does not withdraw his support for the separatists.

But critics say economic sanctions against the Kremlin has been largely ineffective and that more must be done to help Ukraine’s military.

Poroshenko will likely press Obama further on military assistance during his visit.

Poroshenko is making the trip to Washington to “mobilize as much support from the U.S. as possible,” said Balazs Jarabik, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ukraine and Russia are currently holding to a ceasefire, but Jarabik said that Kiev’s situation was still tenuous.

He predicted that the administration would unveil an economic aid package before Poroshenko leaves, “given [that] Ukraine is almost broke.” The visit could also give Poroshenko, who was elected in May, a “boost” at home and possibly strengthen his hand in peace talks with Russia, according to Jarabik.

So far, the Obama administration has been quiet about its expectations for the high-level visit, with its attention on the threat from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“With all the focus on ISIS and the Middle East right now, I just get the sense that there’s not a lot of appetite in the administration to make any major commitment to Ukraine at this point,” according to Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Poroshenko likely will press Obama to have Ukraine designated a “major non-NATO ally,” something that did not happen when the 28-member alliance met earlier this month in Wales, he said.

Mankoff said the new round of economic sanctions against Russia announced Friday shows the president isn’t ready to change his mind on arms for Ukraine.

However, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who also visited Ukraine during the five-week August recess, said administration officials are “not only rethinking, they have rethought their policy,” and are opening the door to more military help.

He said he recently spoke with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and believes that the Pentagon chief is “seriously considering” providing  “up-to-the-minute intelligence” capabilities and training to Kiev's forces.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see an announcement” while Poroshenko is in Washington, said Nelson. The Florida senator was one of the first Democrats to break with Obama over giving arms to Ukraine.

And Nelson said that if Obama didn’t act, Congress would have to step up. He suggested lawmakers might offer an “additional appropriation” to aid Ukraine.

“Ukraine still needs to be front and center,” Nelson said.