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Top U.S. General in Europe: Arming Ukraine ‘Isn’t a Strategy’

Top U.S. General in Europe: Arming Ukraine ‘Isn’t a Strategy’

The top U.S. Army commander in Europe questioned whether Washington should provide weaponry to Ukraine to help in its fight against Russian-backed separatists, a proposal gaining increasing support among American officials alarmed by the rebels’ ongoing gains in eastern Ukraine.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges conceded to reporters Tuesday that arming Ukraine could help its fragile pro-Western government on the battlefield, at least in the short term. But he said that wouldn’t be enough to fundamentally ensure that Ukraine doesn’t lose more territory to Russia in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea last year.

Instead, the general said Washington and its allies should use diplomatic means to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty, and ensure that the NATO alliance doesn’t splinter, while at the same time leaving Russia a path to eventually rejoining the international community.

“Providing weapons is not a strategy,” Hodges said. “There are great arguments for giving weapons to them to help raise the cost for the Russians. I think that is a valid argument. But saying that’s a valid argument is different from saying that this ought to be the policy.”

Hodges’s comments highlight the difficult policy choices facing the White House, where a growing number of senior military and civilian officials have publicly said in recent weeks that the United States should arm Ukraine.

At his confirmation hearing last month, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he’d consider it. Last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he believed the United States should send guns, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told a Senate panel that the U.S. “should absolutely consider lethal aid” to Ukraine that would be coordinated and transported by NATO.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, powerful Democrats like House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) joined House Speaker John Boehner and an array of other Republicans in a letter to the White House pushing for arms for Ukraine.

“In the face of Russian aggression, the lack of clarity on our overall strategy thus far has done little to reassure our friends and allies in the region who, understandably, feel vulnerable. This needs to change,” the lawmakers wrote.

But European allies are wary, and Hodges’s comments Tuesday echoed comments last week by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who made a compelling case in Washington that the road to peace cannot be paved with weapons.

President Barack Obama has so far declined to supply arms for fear Ukraine’s poorly trained military wouldn’t know how to properly use them, and because of the real prospect that they could escalate tensions with Moscow and provoke Russia into further ramping up its military operations against Kiev.

In his comments Tuesday, Hodges raised another dire possibility: Ukrainian troops accidentally killing civilians using weapons provided by the United States.

Hodges also said he was closely monitoring the continued presence of large numbers of Russian troops in Russian territory bordering eastern Ukraine, but has not yet seen signs that they are preparing for an assault on the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. Some Ukrainian and European officials have expressed concerns that Russian President Vladimir Putin might try to conquer the city to secure a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, which he currently lacks.

So far, Hodges said, “I’m not seeing that.”

ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images