The White House, which has relied on economic sanctions and the threat of international isolation to deter Russia from escalating its involvement in Ukraine, has been reluctant to step up military assistance for fear that it will lead to an escalation in the fighting and provoke Moscow.
The $70 million in aid the United States has pledged includes rations, radios, concertina wire, first-aid kits and limited supplies of body armor, but no arms.
But much of the assistance is still in the pipeline, including such important items as night-vision goggles.
The United States has also promised to train 700 members of Ukraine’s National Guard, but that program is not scheduled to get underway until 2015.
In contrast, Ukrainian separatists have been battling the government’s troops with the help of Russian tanks, artillery, antiaircraft weapons and, NATO says, thousands of Russian troops.
President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine is expected to press the case for expanded military support when he visits Washington next week, and he has the backing of some former NATO officials.
“I am 100 percent behind the idea of increasing the sanctions dramatically,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral who was NATO’s military commander from 2009 to 2013.
“But Putin needs to see there is a military cost that will be exacted.”
Admiral Stavridis added that the United States should provide the Ukrainian forces with antitank weapons, ammunition, fuel, cyberdefense help and military advisers.
Administration officials say they are considering a number of options, such as providing the Ukrainians with reconnaissance drones, counterbattery radar to pinpoint the source of enemy artillery fire, and Javelin antitank weapons.
The State Department has been careful not to rule out expanding at least some types of assistance.
“Ukraine has also made a variety of requests for different types of aid, and we’re reviewing all of them to see how we can further support Ukraine in that regard as well,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said last week.
The Ukrainians’ requests include reconnaissance drones, antiaircraft systems, antitank weapons, encrypted radios, and special operations and battlefield medicine training, according to Phillip A. Karber, who was a special adviser to the Reagan-era defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and is with Ukrainian forces at Mariupol, a port city in southeastern Ukraine.
The fighting in recent weeks has exposed glaring deficiencies among Ukrainian forces that enabled the Russian-backed separatists to break the military’s siege of Luhansk, cement their control of Donetsk and advance toward Mariupol before a shaky cease-fire was put in place.
Lacking secure military communications technology, Ukrainian troops have relied on cellphones, which the Russian military can easily pinpoint.
They have used trash bags to collect their dead, and their logistics are so poor that they have only distributed a portion of the field rations the United States has provided.
Even if the Obama administration is not prepared to send lethal aid, experts say, it could send military officers to help Ukraine plan operations, provide training in battlefield medicine and share intelligence on the movements of Russian and separatist troops.
A senior Defense Department official, who declined to be named because he was discussing internal planning, said that the assistance the United States was providing this year was equal to the total given during the eight previous years, and that the Pentagon had worked hard to deliver it as quickly as possible.
But critics say the American assistance is focused not on helping the Ukrainian military regain lost ground, but on general logistics and equipping Ukraine’s outmatched border guards.
“There is no overarching strategy on what they are providing the Ukrainians this year or over three years,” said a staff member on the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee.
The United States European Command has sent teams to Ukraine to assess its needs, but an American official said the effort was aimed principally at improving Ukraine’s military capability three to five years from now.
An added complication is that the foreign military financing system, in which State Department funds are used to pay for equipment that is distributed by the Pentagon, is designed more for sending aid in peacetime than for rushing it to the battlefield.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is said to have expressed frustration at the delays in providing some of the aid when he was briefed on the program this month.
The American aid program has three main components.
One portion is intended to help Ukraine’s armed forces and is funded by $22 million from the State Department.
Only $5.7 million of that has been spent on items already delivered.
That includes 2,000 sets of body armor, 1,000 helmets, 1,929 first-aid kits, 9,000 uniforms, 1,000 neck warmers, 80 radios and seven robots to handle enemy explosives.
The Pentagon has also provided 300,000 meals ready to eat, funded by a separate, $3 million emergency account.
Yet to be delivered are 150 night-vision goggles and 150 infrared vision devices, along with 96 more radios, 1,000 more helmets and 18 water purification systems.
A second portion of the assistance, intended to help Ukraine’s border guards, is supported by $11 million in State Department funds and $15 million from the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
But most of this aid, too, has yet to be delivered.
The final portion of the aid consists of a $19 million program to train and equip a battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard.
The program is being financed by the Global Security Contingency Fund, which is funded by the Defense and State Departments.
As part of the effort, the United States Army plans to train four companies of Ukrainian troops and a headquarters staff, some 700 soldiers in all, most likely at a military base in western Ukraine.
Two companies are to be trained at a time, beginning in 2015.
Source: The New York Times