Gen. Martin Dempsey, alongside Defense Secretary Ash Carter, testifies in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on March 3, 2015.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, alongside Defense Secretary Ash Carter, testifies in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on March 3, 2015. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Dempsey Says It’s Time To 'Absolutely Consider' Arming Ukraine

For the first time, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey says the U.S. should consider giving lethal aid to Ukraine.

CORRECTION: This article and its headline have been updated to reflect that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said the U.S. should consider arming Ukraine. He did not say he believes the U.S. should arm Ukraine. 

The top U.S. military officer said for the first time that he supported the possibility of arming Ukraine in that nation’s battle against Russian separatists.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said on Tuesday that the U.S. should consider supporting Ukraine with lethal assistance.

“I think we should absolutely consider providing lethal aid,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a budget hearing.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had said two weeks ago during his confirmation hearing that he was inclined to support arming the nation. The White House is still mulling over lethal assistance for Ukraine which has struggled to maintain stability after it was invaded by Russian separatists nearly a year ago.

“I very much incline in that direction” Carter told the same panel Feb. 4, “because I think we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves.”

Carter’s remarks were notable since the White House had not decided to arm Ukraine, and policymakers are still mulling what kinds of arms Ukraine would need and what effect that assistance would have on Russia. Now add Dempsey’s voice to a growing number of defense officials who believe it is time for the U.S. to take a bigger step to help Ukraine.

Dempsey caveated his support Tuesday by saying any lethal assistance should flow “in a NATO context.” It wasn’t immediately clear what Dempsey meant, but it’s likely he sees the most effective way to arm Ukraine is by providing assistance along with NATO allies and not just by the U.S. 

I think we should absolutely consider providing lethal aid
Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

There are about 12,000 Russian troops in eastern Ukraine and more than twice that amount in Crimea, which Russia annexed last spring, according to AP, citing data from U.S. military officials in Europe. Both sides had agreed to a cease-fire earlier this month, but it has not held. Leaders of Western countries told Russia Tuesday that they would increase pressure on Moscow with sanctions if it continued to violate the ceasefire agreement. 

Gen. Philip Breedlove, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander, told Congress last week that it wasn’t immediately clear that simply arming Ukraine would help it push separatists out of its country.

“In the current configuration I do not think that Ukrainian forces can stop a Russian advance in Eastern Ukraine,” Breedlove said during a House Armed Services hearing last Wednesday. “And to the degree that we can supply help, I’m not sure that they could stop a Russian advance in Eastern Ukraine even if we supply aid … but what we’re doing now is not changing the results on the ground.” Breedlove has said he supports lethal assistance for Ukraine.

And in Germany Tuesday, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, said that while weapons wouldn’t change the equation for Ukraine singlehandedly, they would give “muscle” to diplomatic efforts. Hodges did not specify what weapons the U.S. would offer, but said that what Ukraine wants "is intelligence, counter-fire capability and something that can stop a Russian tank,” Hodges said as reported by AP.

"If you don't have something that gives muscle to the diplomacy, to the economic aspect, then it's not going to be as effective," he said.

In the meantime, Ukraine is anxious for weapons. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met with American defense companies during an international trade show last week in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition executive also met with a Ukrainian delegation last week.  Kendall, in an interview with Defense One before the meeting, said he would be bringing a message of support from the United States.

“I expect the conversation will be about their needs,” Kendall told Defense One. “We’re limited at this point in time in terms of what we’re able to provide them, but where we can be supportive, we want to be.”