“I want to begin by sharing the frustration” on the committee “about the slowness with which we’re providing assistance to Ukraine,” Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday in Washington.
Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said there’s “no question on this committee that the United States needs to do more” to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression.
The committee chairman, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, said the legislators’ frustration is driven by a sense that many administration officials agree with them.
He spoke of the steps “many people within the administration feel need to be taken, and yet we continue for some reason not to do.”
Despite the inaction so far, administration witnesses at the hearing on countering Russia and driving Ukrainian reform painted a picture of continuing Russian aggression undeterred by sanctions and diplomatic agreements.
Russia continues to send arms into eastern Ukraine, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said, adding that “this continued resupply over the border” isn’t compatible with the spirit or the letter of the latest cease-fire agreement reached in Minsk, the capital of Belarus.
Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Brian McKeon said Russians continue to operate in eastern Ukraine, providing command-and-control support and other help to separatists.
“They’re moving military equipment” and battalion groups across the border “in some significant number,” McKeon said.
Both officials repeatedly told lawmakers that the White House continues to “actively” consider sending the military aid that Ukraine’s leaders seek.
“We are looking at all our options, including the possibility of lethal defensive weapons,” McKeon said.
Corker spoke openly about differences of opinion within the administration, telling reporters after the hearing that Nuland “has been someone who is always leaning forward on what we should do, but our nation is not doing that.”
In recent days, the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence have all publicly broken with the president’s refusal to send arms to Ukraine.
“I think we should absolutely consider providing lethal aid,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
European countries led by Germany continue to oppose arming Ukraine, arguing that doing so would only fuel the conflict, and that Russia’s proximity would enable it to match and outstrip Western imports by sending more weapons to Ukrainian separatists.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who’s set to arrive in Washington on Wednesday, is expected to repeat that argument in meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and lawmakers.
Administration officials have offered two counterarguments.
Nuland voiced one at Tuesday’s hearing, telling lawmakers that “our unity with Europe remains the cornerstone of our policy toward this crisis.”
Other administration officials such as Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken have argued that Russia, which shares a border with Ukraine, could easily outstrip any weapons shipments the U.S. sends, leading to escalation.
Lawmakers and some witnesses questioned that logic today.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has clearly demonstrated that his goal is “to carve out for Russia a strategic place of influence,” not adhere to agreements.
The committee’s top Democrat, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, another advocate of sending arms to Ukraine, said there have been “about 1,000 violations” of the Ukraine cease-fire agreement.
“We keep working on an aspirational basis, while Russia works effectively to take more and more Ukrainian land,” he said.
“I don’t get it.”
John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said sending weapons could help undermine Putin and wouldn’t damage the U.S.-Europe alliance.
Putin’s vulnerability lies in the reality that “Russians don’t want to be fighting,” Herbst said.
Nuland, who estimated that Russian casualties in Ukraine are now about “four-five hundred,” said the Kremlin is so intent on keeping Russian deaths in Ukraine secret that officials threaten families with the loss of military death benefits if they ask too many questions about a son’s, brother’s or father’s death.
“If we provide defensive lethal equipment to Ukraine that means Putin will be deterred from going farther into Ukraine,” Herbst said, “or if he goes farther into Ukraine, his support at home will weaken” as the number of Russian casualties mounts.
Confronting Putin with a greater challenge in Ukraine would also mean he “has fewer resources to pursue his policies beyond Ukraine,” Herbst said.
He said German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Obama during her visit to the U.S. that she would work hard to ensure there was trans-Atlantic harmony if weapons shipments did begin.
“That’s an amber light,” Herbst said.
“I don’t have any doubt we could manage the alliance on this.”