US & Canada

Ukraine crisis: US struggles with question of arms

Ukrainian soldier in the Donetsk region Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Democrats are pushing for more US support for Ukrainian soldiers

US President Barack Obama has baulked at sending weapons to Ukraine. But many Democrats, including several who used to work for him, are demanding he change his policy.

Speaking at an event in Washington last week, the White House official was unusually blunt. He said Ukrainian leaders had been badgering US officials for weapons.

Speaking off the record, he sounded almost annoyed by the requests. He made it clear that he and other US officials thought that sending weapons could make things worse.

People in the room - many of whom had lived and worked in Ukraine - were upset. One man defended the requests for arms. When he sat down, other people in the audience clapped and cheered.

"They believe Ukraine is a victim, and of course it is," one of the audience members, John Herbst, the former US ambassador in Kiev, said later, "and that the US should be doing more."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Obama is "evaluating other options" for dealing with Ukraine crisis

They're not the only ones who are upset with the president - and think he is wrong about the issue.

In his column the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl described a "Democratic rebellion against Obama's policies".

He said many Democrats believe Mr Obama has been "too slow and limited in his response to Russia's gross violation of international treaties guaranteeing European borders".

One of these Democrats, Rep Gerald Connolly, who serves on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he would like the US to supply weapons for Ukrainian forces.

Still he understands the president's need for caution.

"He is proceeding more deliberately and carefully than Congress would like," Mr Connolly told the BBC. "But that's not an unusual difference."

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionFormer US ambassador to Ukraine advocates lethal aid

Obama officials are now looking at various ways of dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russian officials have said they are not involved in eastern Ukraine. They claim that if Russians are fighting, they're doing it on their own.

Meanwhile pro-Russian separatists appear to be gaining ground. Their leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, said their goal is to increase their forces to 100,000.

On Monday Mr Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said they did not believe that sending weapons would along resolve the crisis.

"We don't think the answer to the crisis in Ukraine is simply to inject more weapons and get into that type of tit-for-tat with Russia," Mr Rhodes said on CNN.

Instead, he said, he and other White House officials believe the best strategy is to "apply pressure" on those who are involved in the conflict, encouraging them to work for "a peaceful de-escalation".

Working towards a diplomatic solution, rather than sending arms to Ukraine, has been the US policy for some time.

The ban on providing weapons to Ukraine is discussed at White House meetings, though, and the policy may soon be under a serious review.

There are signs that Mr Obama is re-thinking his policy.

Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said: "We are always evaluating other options that will help create space for a negotiated solution to the crisis."

These options include ramping up economic sanctions against Russia.

Another option is supplying Ukrainian forces with "lethal assistance". This is an odd phrase that means weapons used to kill, rather than military supplies such as night-vision goggles. (The US is already providing those.)

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption US Secretary of State John Kerry will talk about US policy in Kiev

Up until now US officials have not approved the supply of arms.

"They've been concerned about taking steps that the Russians would consider to be provocative," said Mr Herbst.

He is the director of the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center - and the co-author a new report, written with several people who used to work for Obama, that criticises the president's approach to Ukraine.

They say the US should provide Ukraine with drones, Humvees and other kinds of equipment, sending $3bn worth of supplies to their forces.

They also believe the US should send light anti-armour missiles. These weapons, as the authors of the report explained, "would give the Ukrainian army the capability to impose heavier costs".

It's not clear if Mr Obama will supply the Ukrainian army with weapons - or when he'll make a final decision about them.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is travelling to Kiev on Thursday, though, and he will almost certainly be asked about the president's plans.

People in Ukraine could hear soon about what US officials intend to do - and whether or not they will receive US arms.

Mr Herbst acknowledges the risk of escalation - or at least he understands that is one of Mr Obama's fears. Still, he believes the bigger risk is not supplying the weapons.

As he says: "The Ukrainians need help."