US "looking at options" to arm Ukraine against separatists

The United States is having a “fresh look” at the option of arming Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists, senior administration officials admitted Tuesday, although they insisted that no decision had been made.

“It’s getting a fresh look,” a White House source told reporters following deliberations among Obama administration officials on whether to send defensive weapons to prop up Ukrainian forces. “Where things will end up, we don’t know.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry is due in Kiev on Thursday for talks with Ukraine’s government, the same day NATO defence ministers meet in Brussels.

The policy rethink reflects what US officials say is a frustration with Moscow’s continued support for rebels despite months of international economic sanctions, and the collapse of the latest attempt at peace talks at the weekend.

Sanctions ‘best way to contain Russia’

Washington already provides military equipment to Ukraine, such as counter-mortar detection units, body armour, binoculars, small boats and other equipment .

But it has delayed any decision for months on providing arms, from rifles to anti-tank weapons, amid efforts to find a diplomatic solution.

However, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was particularly concerned with mounting violence after months of fighting close to the Russian border.

Separatists pounded positions of Ukrainian government troops holding a strategic rail town as both sides mobilized more troops. Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed in clashes at the weekend and 15 civilians died on Saturday.

While the United States and Western allies pursue a diplomatic solution, the administration was constantly reviewing how to help Ukraine, Psaki said.

“We haven’t taken options on or off the table,” she said. “I don’t think anybody wants to get into a proxy war with Russia,” Psaki said. “Our objective here is to change the behaviour of Russia. That’s the reason we have put the sanctions in place.”

The West says the rebels are armed by Russia and supported by several thousand Russian troops, a claim Moscow denies. Both the EU and United States have imposed sanctions against Russia.

US President Barack Obama will host German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on Monday. She has said Germany would not supply weapons to Kiev’s military but has not objected to Washington doing so.

White House national security adviser Ben Rhodes, however, told CNN the best way to influence Russia was through economic sanctions.

Report advocates ‘lethal defensive arms’

The announcement, first reported in the New York Times, coincided with a report by a group of former senior civilian and US military leaders urging Washington to supply arms to the Ukrainian government.

Authors of the report included officials with close ties to the White House, including the former number-three-ranking civilian at the Pentagon, Michele Flournoy, and the former US ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder.

"The West needs to bolster deterrence in Ukraine by raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive," said the report published by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

"That requires providing direct military assistance — in far larger amounts than provided to date and including lethal defensive arms — so that Ukraine is better able to defend itself," the report said, calling for $3 billion in military assistance over the next three years.

The report was signed by former NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis and the former deputy commander for US forces in Europe, General Charles Wald.


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