The Cable

Washington’s Mixed Messaging on Arming Ukraine Continues

More and more Democrats are breaking with the White House with calls to arm Ukraine.


An array of powerful House Democrats and Republicans sent a new letter to President Barack Obama calling for arming Ukraine, the latest example of the months of mixed messages coming out of Washington as Ukraine’s fragile pro-Western government tries to gauge its level of American support in the fight against Russian-backed separatists in eastern 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 in the letter, sent to the White House by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) Wednesday but circulated to the media Thursday.

The Democrats who signed the letter — House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.), House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), and House Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — are among a growing number of members of Obama’s own party, including cabinet-level appointees, pushing for a position the White House is so far refusing to adopt.

The list includes Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who said at his February 2015 confirmation hearing that he would consider sending weapons to Ukraine. On Monday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he believed the United States should send guns. They were joined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that the United States “should absolutely consider lethal aid” to Ukraine that would be funneled through NATO.

The White House has reserved the right to consider sending lethal assistance to Kiev but has favored the European strategy of economic pressure over direct infusions of lethal military force.

“If, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options — what other means can we put in place to change Mr. Putin’s calculus — and the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined,” Obama said during a Feb. 9, 2015, press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steele told Foreign Policy in an email Thursday that the letter urging a change in policy follows meetings with Ukrainian lawmakers last week. Kiev is clearly unsure of where Washington stands on the issue: A month ago, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was all but certain American arms would be coming imminently.

Right now, the United States is sending non-lethal aid like body armor and Humvees. Russian weapons have been on eastern Ukraine’s battlefields for months and Russian President Vladimir Putin has boasted that more could arrive “imminently.”

Eight House Republicans — Boehner; House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.); Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.); Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas); Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.); Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.); Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.); and State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Kay Granger (R-Texas) — signed the letter.

There are also questions about the timing of the letter. Fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian security forces has tapered off recently after a year of combat claimed more than 6,000 lives. On Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said U.S. and European policymakers were nearing agreement on new economic punishments targeting Russia’s energy, financial, and defense sectors, to be used if Moscow violates the cease-fire agreement.

With a peace deal holding and sanctions loaded, the letter could anger Putin and alienate some key American allies, Stephen Szabo, the executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Academy, told Foreign Policy.

“I don’t know what these people are thinking,” Szabo said, referring to the signatories on the new letter. “You’re going to risk a split with the Germans at a time we can’t afford to do that. [The conflict] has quieted down right now. Why do we want to escalate?”

Photo Credit: Scott Peterson/AFP

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