Russian Hard-Line Stance On Ukraine Prompts U.S. To Reconsider Policy

WASHINGTON, DC -- Nearly a year after Russia began its military campaign in Ukraine, the U.S. and its European allies find themselves in a familiar predicament: struggling to devise a strategy to get Moscow to back off.

Pro-Russian rebels drive a Russian mobile anti-aircraft system Strela-10 in Donetsk on Tuesday.

While Western economic sanctions, combined with a steep drop in the price of oil, have inflicted heavy damage on the Russian economy, they’ve done nothing to temper the Kremlin’s support for eastern Ukraine’s separatist insurgency, U.S. officials acknowledge.

“It’s fair to say that costs haven’t risen high enough for the Russian leadership to rethink their course of action,” a senior Obama administration official said.

As Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Ukraine to meet with President Petro Poroshenko and other Ukrainian leaders this week, policy makers in Washington are re-examining their decision not to supply weapons to Ukraine.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined Tuesday to specify whether Mr. Kerry would offer new U.S. aid.

“He’s going because it’s important in his view to…discuss progress that’s been made, progress they can still continue to make on everything from economic reforms to the effort to de-escalate the situation on the ground,” she said.

Another official cautioned that sanctions need more time to play out, and that new business restrictions against Russia are in the works.

“If you are looking for instant gratification, you are in the wrong business,” another official said.

Still, more U.S. officials are arguing that economic pressure should be combined with more robust security assistance.

The idea of providing defensive weapons to the Ukrainians has long enjoyed the support of some senior officials at the state and defense departments.

But in the past their recommendations ran into resistance at the White House.

The renewed debate signals that the Obama administration is reassessing the efficacy of its Russia policy.

Lethal military aid to Ukraine still has plenty of opponents who argue that Washington, having made clear it won’t go to war with Moscow over Ukraine, would accomplish little by arming Ukrainian troops. 

Such a move could prompt an even bloodier and more-punishing campaign by Moscow and its proxies, they argue.

Thousands of people have died already since the fighting began almost a year ago.

Backers of military aid agree that in any war with Russia, Ukraine, no matter how well armed by the Americans, is bound to suffer a defeat.

But better weapons, they maintain, would allow Kiev to inflict greater losses and make the cost far higher for Moscow.

The Kremlin, which denies supporting the rebels or sending regular Russian troops to the fight, has been sensitive to reports of deaths of Russian military servicemen in Ukraine.

One argument of the lethal-aid supporters is that more body bags heading back to Russia, potentially stirring public outrage, would force the Kremlin to reconsider its stance.

The conflict flared anew last month after the collapse of a tenuous cease-fire.

Armed with what Washington says are heavy weapons covertly supplied by Russia, the separatists are pushing to expand their territory in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainians have been asking for antitank weapons in particular to fight modern Russian tanks.

Back in the fall, the last time the issue was debated in earnest, officials at the National Security Council argued that no amount of aid would alter the fact that Russia’s military is vastly superior to Ukraine’s, and that American-supplied arms would only escalate the confrontation. 

The argument won over last year, and the U.S. limited its aid only to nonlethal articles, such as radar to pinpoint the source of incoming artillery.

The hope was that U.S. restraint would beget Russian restraint on the battlefield.

However, one senior U.S. official said, Russia-backed separatists used months of relative calm to receive new heavy weaponry from Russia.

That has given the proponents of lethal aid an opening to make their case again that U.S. policy in the region—alongside sanctions against Moscow and economic support for Kiev—should also include a greater military component.

Source: The Wall Street Journal