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A senior State Department official said Wednesday that the U.S. considers Russia’s military support for rebels in neighboring Eastern Ukraine an “invasion," which could mark the first time any U.S. official has made such an acknowledgment in public.
U.S. officials have studiously avoided calling Russia’s support for the rebels since its annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea last March an “invasion.”
But during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland was questioned by Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) as to whether the support constituted an “invasion.”
“We have used that word in the past, yes,” Nuland responded.
Lawmakers at the hearing also expressed growing frustration with the Obama administration’s unwillingness so far to provide Ukrainian forces with weapons, despite Russia sending tanks, heavy weapons and troops into Ukraine and more than 6,000 Ukrainian deaths.
The White House has been “considering” providing lethal weapons to Ukraine for almost a year, but has not done so out of concern it could provoke further Russian aggression.
Nuland said Wednesday, “That question is still under discussion, and the president has not made a decision.”
She also said the White House is watching to see whether Russia will abide a ceasefire negotiated last month between Moscow and Kiev. Republicans on the committee blasted that response.
“I do believe delay is denial, and I think we have a de facto defensive weapons arms embargo on Ukraine,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).
“How many more bodybags before we get in gear and make this decision? What do you think the president's thinking?” asked Rep. Randy WeberRandy WeberRyan transfers record M to House GOP's campaign arm in March Freedom Caucus poised for pivotal role in infrastructure fight The Hill's Whip List: 36 GOP no votes on ObamaCare repeal plan MORE (R-Texas).
“Harsh words and ‘We'll get back to you’ and ‘We're deciding’ — that doesn't help,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) added.
Nuland dismissed charges that the president has not been engaged on Ukraine, saying he “has been the leader of this Ukraine policy," and has “been enormously engaged.”
“I've been in meetings with him where he's passionate,” she said.
Former Defense Secretary Chuck HagelChuck HagelThe US just attacked Syria. So where's Congress? Senators tear into Marines on nude photo scandal Lobbying World MORE was reportedly frustrated with the White House’s slow decision-making over Ukraine, contributing to his resignation earlier this year.
Lawmakers also noted that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said last month he was “inclined” toward providing Ukraine with lethal weapons, and that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said Tuesday he would “absolutely consider providing lethal aid.”
But Nuland said the decision was up to the president: “These are his decisions to make. We will certainly convey to him your concern.”
The U.S. has also been wary of sharing intelligence with Ukraine, but Nuland said intelligence cooperation was “improving over time.”
Nuland said the Obama administration has enacted five rounds of sanctions on Moscow along with European allies, and provided financial and non-lethal military assistance to Ukraine.
She said, so far, the U.S. has provided nearly $120 million in “non-lethal” military assistance, including blankets, sleeping mats, food packets, medical equipment, body armor and, more recently, counter-mortar radar. The U.S. has also provided some medical and military training to Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian officials say they need light anti-tank missiles, long-range counter-battery radar and better communications equipment in order to fight back against Russian trained and equipped rebels.
Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) called the U.S. response so far “tepid.”
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), added that those policies “are good but only up to a point. They don’t go far enough.” Engel also announced new legislation Wednesday that would “offer Ukraine greater assistance on a variety of fronts.”
“Ukraine is not going to win a war against Russia, but it can impose a greater cost on Vladimir Putin's aggression and slow Russia's advances, and it has a chance to remain on its feet when all is said and done,” Engel said.
“Ongoing Russian aggression threatens the security and stability of the entire region and undermines decades of American commitment to and investment in Europe that is whole, free and at peace. In fact, this is a threat to the whole international order,” he said.