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A Bipartisan Cause In Washington: Arming Ukraine Against Russia

Eliot Engel, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is among the numerous U.S. lawmakers voicing mounting frustration with the White House over its reluctance to send weapons to Ukraine.
Eliot Engel, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is among the numerous U.S. lawmakers voicing mounting frustration with the White House over its reluctance to send weapons to Ukraine.

WASHINGTON -- Bipartisan consensus is often elusive in Washington's highly polarized political environment. But consensus appears to be snowballing among Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the U.S. capital on at least one issue: arming Ukraine.

One exception, however, is the figure who matters most: President Barack Obama.

"This is a great stain on us," U.S. Representative Eliot Engel (Democrat-New York) said of the White House's reluctance to provide weapons to Kyiv in its standoff with Moscow and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. "I just think it's woefully inadequate, and I think it will have repercussions beyond Ukraine down the line."

Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is among the numerous U.S. lawmakers voicing mounting frustration with the White House over its reluctance to send weapons to Ukraine.

He said the nearly $200 million in nonlethal military aid earmarked for Kyiv so far -- including a $75 million package announced on March 11 -- will do little to help Ukraine defend itself against separatist forces that Western governments accuse Moscow of backing with arms and personnel.

The new package is slated to include what the White House called "nonlethal defensive security assistance," including communications equipment, counter-mortar radars, night-vision devices, medical supplies, and Raven surveillance drones that can be launched by hand.

Speaking to RFE/RL on March 11 after the White House announced the new round of assistance, Engel allowed that Kyiv needs that equipment. But added, "It's not really going to help them in the long run."

This exasperation has crossed party lines, even amid acrimony between Democrats and Republicans over negotiations to restrict Iran's nuclear program and a range of domestic issues.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on March 10, the committee's Republican chairman, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, said "the refusal of the administration to step up with more robust support for Ukraine and further pressure on Russia is a blight on U.S. policy."

"Any strategy will not be effective unless the United States begins to provide Ukraine with the ability to inflict serious military costs using defensive weapons on the thousands of Russian troops operating in its eastern regions," Corker said.

Russia has repeatedly denied accusations by the United States, the EU, Ukraine, and NATO that its troops are fighting in Ukraine and that Moscow is providing weapons to the separatists.

Last week, Engel and 10 other U.S. representatives -- including Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, signed a letter urging Obama to "quickly approve additional efforts to support Ukraine's efforts to defend its sovereign territory, including through the transfer of lethal, defensive weapons systems to the Ukrainian military."

Engel noted that during a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Ukraine earlier this month, "the overwhelming sentiment on both sides of the aisle was for the United States to arm Ukraine with defensive weapons."

"That was true of the Democratic side as well as the Republican side. I mean, it wasn't unanimous, but it was, I think, pretty overwhelming," he told RFE/RL.

Avoiding 'Greater Bloodshed'

In December, Obama signed legislation passed with bipartisan support that authorizes -- but does not require -- the U.S. president to provide lethal military aid to Ukraine.

But Obama has resisted providing such assistance despite the pressure from lawmakers and public statements by top military brass, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, supporting lethal aid to Kyiv.

"The president has all the authority he needs to do it. He just needs to have the will to do it," Engel told RFE/RL. "Even the new defense secretary has indicated that this is what we should be doing. There are lots of people who believe that this is what we should be doing."

The White House, however, is also facing counterpressure from key European allies that oppose sending weapons to Kyiv. The allies fear that the arms could fuel an escalation in eastern Ukraine, where a fragile cease-fire has been in place since February 15 under a peace agreement brokered in Minsk.

Germany's ambassador to the United States, Peter Wittig, told The Associated Press in a March 9 interview that in a February meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders agreed not to deliver "lethal defensive weapons [to Ukraine] at this time."

At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing the day after the interview, Corker accused the Obama administration of duplicity in its handling of the issue.

"Germany's ambassador to the United States says that President Obama privately pledged to Chancellor Merkel in February that the United States will not deliver lethal military assistance to Ukraine despite the fact that he and other administration officials continue to tell the American public that they are seriously considering this policy," Corker said.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, told the hearing that a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Ukraine was only possible if Russian President Vladimir Putin "believes that the cost of continuing to ravage Ukraine is simply too high."

"Providing nonlethal equipment, like night-vision goggles, is all well and good, but giving Ukrainians the ability to see Russians coming -- but not the weapons to stop them -- is not the answer," Menendez said.

The White House, meanwhile, has yet to budge publicly from its stance on arming Ukraine despite the calls to do so. White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington on March 11 that lethal military assistance "almost by definition" would "lead to greater bloodshed."

"The fact is, our engagement here and our support for these ongoing diplomatic negotiations is that we are trying to avoid greater bloodshed," Earnest said. "So that is one thing that President [Obama] is mindful of."

He added that it was unlikely that the United States "would be able to provide enough military support to the Ukrainian military that they could overwhelm the military operations that are currently being backed by Russia."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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