Obama Won’t Arm Ukrainian Military as Putin Seizes Ground

Pro-Russian rebels, backed by Russian military, on the offensive

A woman visits a market in the Mariupol, which was recently attacked by Russia-backed separatists. / AP
January 28, 2015

The Obama administration continues to resist appeals by U.S. lawmakers to provide lethal aid to Ukraine’s beleaguered military, even as deaths mount in the government’s conflict with pro-Russian separatists.

The separatists, who Obama and other U.S. officials say are backed by Russian financing, weapons, and troops, forced Ukrainian forces to withdraw from the Donetsk airport in recent days and launched rocket attacks on the strategic port of Mariupol. The attacks killed 30 people. Rebel fighters are now attempting to encircle government troops at the eastern rail hub of Debaltseve as their offensive strains the country’s finances, which have suffered from a weak economy.

While Obama said on Sunday during his trip to India that he was "deeply concerned" about the intensifying clashes in Ukraine, he offered no indication that he would approve the transfer of lethal supplies, such as antitank weapons, that have been requested by Ukrainian forces. The United States has so far only sent armored trucks to Ukraine and recently agreed to train government troops in the western part of the country, away from the battles in the east near the border with Russia.

U.S. lawmakers who backed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act—signed by the president into law last month—have urged him to act on his authorities under the statute and arm the Ukrainian military, as well as to apply more sanctions on Russia’s defense, banking, and energy sectors. Obama has yet to heed their advice, though he has said that more sanctions could be imposed.

"As separatist violence in #Ukraine mounts, President Obama should use new authority to arm Ukraine & impose tougher sanctions on #Russia," tweeted Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a co-author of the law, earlier this month.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said it was "shameful" that U.S. officials had declined to furnish Ukrainian troops with defensive weapons during a CNBC interview on Wednesday.

The European Union’s foreign minsters will meet on Thursday to discuss imposing more sanctions on Russia, which have so far failed to convince President Vladimir Putin to change course and revoke his support for the separatists.

Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said in an interview that Putin’s goal all along has been to "punish, destabilize, and possibly destroy Ukraine" after the country’s former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted last February amid mass protests.

Putin’s public approval ratings slid to their lowest level in 13 years at the end of 2013 as Russia’s citizens grappled with soaring prices and a sputtering economy. Thousands protested his election to a third term as president in 2012.

Putin was able to reverse that decline in approval by seizing Crimea last March and fomenting a separatist movement in the eastern part of Ukraine. He has described both these actions as necessary efforts to protect Russian ethnic minorities from "fascist" leaders in Kiev. As Russia’s economy has further deteriorated from low oil prices and Western sanctions, this strategy of  "patriotic mobilization" is the only option he has left, Aron said.

"Patriotic mobilization is the only thing that currently sustains the [Putin] regime," he said. "Everything else is crumbling."

Putin’s next target is likely Mariupol, the port city that stands between separatists in eastern Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea.

One thing could alter Putin’s calculus—a military defeat, led by Ukrainian troops with U.S. weapons, Aron said.

"If Russia is rolled back, and the patriotic mobilization stops working, then all of those problems [from 2013] will come back, plus the danger of having been put through a great deal of suffering and death," he said.

More than 5,000 people have died in Ukraine since fighting began last April, according to the United Nations.