The Cable

German Ambassador Warns Against Arming Ukraine

As the drumbeat for arming Ukraine grows louder in Washington, Germany’s top diplomat to the United States cautioned the West to consider the danger of inadvertently escalating the deadly crisis -- and triggering a bigger showdown with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-POLITICS
Members of Ukrainian volunteer battalion Dnipro stand in a truck covered in steel plates near the small southern Ukrainian city of Novoazovsk, Donetsk region, on August 27, 2014. Ukraine appealed for NATO's help on August 27 after reporting that a huge convoy of tanks and weaponry from Russia was moving through the southeast of the country. AFP PHOTO/ ALEXANDER KHUDOTEPLY (Photo credit should read Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images)

As the drumbeat for arming Ukraine grows louder in Washington, Germany’s top diplomat to the United States cautioned the West to consider the danger of inadvertently escalating the deadly crisis — and triggering a bigger showdown with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“We don’t see how delivery of weapons would downplay the tensions,” Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the United States, told a group of reporters during a wide-ranging discussion Thursday. “Let’s try our diplomacy before we embark on a path that might escalate military tensions.”

His remarks came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande arrived in Kiev in a surprise trip to present a new peace plan, the details of which are not yet known. In recent days, the bloodletting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed rebels has intensified in a conflict that has seen more than 5,000 deaths since April.

In the West, the Obama administration and its allies have long avoided supplying weapons to Kiev and have instead provided non-lethal equipment like body armor, night-vision goggles, and radar equipment. But Washington’s previous opposition to sending weapons is beginning to shift as a number of influential voices inside and outside of the Obama administration clamor for an influx of weaponry.

At a joint news conference with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States was reviewing all options, including “the possibility of providing defensive systems to Ukraine.” On Wednesday, President Barack Obama’s nominee to become defense secretary told Congress he was inclined to support providing arms to Ukraine. Days earlier, the New York Times reported that NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove now supports new lethal assistance for the country.

On Capitol Hill, more than 30 Democrats and Republicans urged the White House to increase military assistance to Ukraine in a letter signed by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and other House members.

The hawkish shift came as a group of former U.S. and NATO officials issued a report in support of more military aid to Ukraine in order to “increase Kiev’s ability to deter further Russian escalation.”

“If the United States and NATO do not adequately support Ukraine, Moscow may well conclude that the kinds of tactics it has employed over the past year can be applied elsewhere,” wrote the authors, who include Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration; Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution; and Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Global Affairs Council.

But Wittig warned of a Russian counter-escalation, echoing the fears cited by other academics, that Moscow’s willingness to wage war will inevitably outmatch the West’s given Ukraine’s supreme cultural and geographical importance to the Kremlin.

“Those who advocate for … the delivery of arms, I would ask the question: Where does that lead to? Have you thought it through?” said Wittig. “Where are we heading with this?”

The Brookings Institution’s Jeremy Shapiro has voiced similar concerns, noting Russia’s military supremacy in the region. “No program of U.S. assistance will change that balance,” noted Shapiro. “Indeed, the Russian military is far stronger than the Ukrainian military, as we learned in late August when a one-off injection of regular units led to hundreds of dead Ukrainians at Ilovaisk.”

Still, Wittig acknowledged and criticized Russia’s repeated violations of the September Minsk agreement, which called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and the removal of foreign fighters. “We are extremely frustrated about the lacking results of all diplomatic efforts,” he said.

Hollande and Merkel arrived in Kiev on Thursday to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The surprise visit has raised hope in some quarters that a diplomatic breakthrough in the crisis may be possible. Speaking of the current environment in Kiev and Moscow, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Thursday that “there have been signals from both capitals indicating that they’re looking for a reduction in tensions.”

“In a situation like this you have no choice but to determine what the options are,” he said in a statement.

The German and French heads of state will travel to Moscow on Friday to continue their diplomatic efforts. On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said that if the United States supplies weapons to Ukraine, it will “inflict colossal damage to Russian-American relations.” At the moment, the mutual diplomatic agenda of the two countries includes a number of thorny issues including the bloody civil war in Syria and the ongoing negotiations to restrain Iran’s nuclear program.

Wittig was named German ambassador to the United States in April 2014 after having served as the ambassador to the United Nations since 2009.

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