As Air Force One lifts off Tuesday for President Barack Obama’s trip to Estonia and then the NATO summit in Wales, he carries with him growing pressure for more direct involvement in Ukraine.
Over the weekend, leading Democrats joined calls for the U.S. to expand its role in responding to aggression from Russia. Recommendations ranged from granting a longstanding request from Ukraine for offensive and lethal aid to engaging in direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“With Putin’s second invasion of Ukraine, now is the time for the United States to act with our European partners to counter Russia’s irridentist goals by providing weapons to allow Ukrainians to defend themselves, as well as additional support and training to the Ukrainian military, and to impose further sectoral sanctions to isolate Russia,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., wrote in a letter to the president on Saturday.
Menendez is traveling through Eastern Europe ahead of Obama and met with the presidents of Estonia and Poland to discuss the security situation in Ukraine. Returning from Kiev on Tuesday, Menendez told NPR’s “Morning Edition” that the defensive weapons being used by the Ukrainian military are insufficient.
“I mean, you’ve had thousands of Russian troops with columns of tanks, armored vehicles and heavy artillery—including surface-to-surface missiles—come at the Ukrainian Army,” he said. “And they’re not in a position with the equipment that they have to go ahead and fight back. So while we have provided night-vision goggles, that’s great, but seeing your enemy and being able to fight them is two different things.”
“You need to have the ability to stop a tank,” he said. “If a tank is coming at you and you’re firing with a B-shooter, you’re not going to be able to stop that tank.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said the U.S. is responsible for the continued Ukraine crisis because of Obama’s “shameful” approach of not providing Ukrainian troops the kind of lethal aid they have requested for months. In July, after Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Pentagon assistance was focused on non-lethal aid, such as radios, body armor and sleeping mats, with night vision goggles expected shortly. He said initial authorizations from the president for assistance had been caught up in the Pentagon’s procurement process.
Aid remains limited to non-lethal options, though the Pentagon reported at the beginning of August that it will use $19 million from a global security contingency fund to train and equip Ukrainian National Guard.
On Sunday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said such efforts have not gone far enough. She called for direct talks with Putin.
“I think there ought to be direct discussions with Vladimir Putin,” Feinstein said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” “People say, ‘Well, just wait till the sanctions bite and the economy slips.’ I don’t think so.”
Even as Russia raises the stakes from equipping the separatists battling the Ukrainian government in Eastern Ukraine to actively sending in troops, Obama has emphasized—as with other foreign policy crises embroiling his administration—that there is no U.S. military solution.
“It is not in the cards for us to see a military confrontation between Russia and the United States in this region,” Obama said Thursday, following the release of satellite images showing Russian artillery, vehicles and troops on the Ukrainian side of the border.
The president has decided to increase the number of U.S. troops in Poland to 300 and involve the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne in Baltic Air Patrol, Menendez noted. And NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the summit’s agenda will include plans to deploy NATO troops to Eastern European bases, as well as the formation of a rapid response force to quickly respond to threats in the region.
White House officials say Obama’s trip to Estonia and the summit is a strong message to Russia. “Don’t even think about messing around in Estonia or in any of the Baltic areas in the same way that you have been messing around in Ukraine,” White House Senior Director for European Affairs Charles Kupchan said on Friday.
But providing Ukraine the direct lethal aid that lawmakers are urging could box the U.S. into the precise leadership role that the president has said would not be appropriate or effective in dealing with Russia, and could be perceived as the very proxy war that the president’s measured foreign policy approach has sought to avoid.