Pressure is building on President Barack Obama to arm the Ukrainians, with top House officials adding force to the push. On Thursday, eight Republicans and three top Democrats — including the ranking members of the Armed Services, Intelligence, and Foreign Affairs Committees — sent Obama a letter urging him “in the strongest possible terms” to quickly approve the transfer of lethal and defensive weapons systems to Ukraine.
“In anticipation of the near certainty that Russia and its separatist proxies continue their efforts to destabilize Ukraine and seize additional territory,” the lawmakers wrote, “we urge you 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.”
House leaders Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., penned the letter, along with the chairmen of the most powerful committees — Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers, R-Ky.; Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.; Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas; Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce, R-Calif.; Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes, R-Calif.; and Chairwoman of the House State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee Kay Granger, R-Texas. But top lawmakers from the president’s party also signed, including Foreign Affairs Ranking Member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Armed Services Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash.
Democrats joining in Republican calls for lethal U.S. assistance — the GOP response to many of the foreign policy crises currently facing the administration — may yet tip the scale. As Schiff told Defense One, “Tighter sanctions and greater humanitarian assistance should be part of our support, but now, more than ever, the U.S. must supply Ukraine with the means to defend itself.”
Even Obama’s top brass, who have been reluctant to get out ahead of a decision from the commander in chief, have given their strongest indication yet in recent weeks that they would support the move. On Tuesday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “We should absolutely consider providing lethal aid.” Dempsey’s comments followed similar statements from Defense Secretary Ash Carter in his confirmation hearing that “I very much incline in that direction … I think we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves,” Carter said on Feb. 4.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that he would “favor” arming Ukraine. He called this position “a personal perspective,” not one representing the official intelligence community. At the same time, Clapper acknowledged that providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian military would likely escalate the conflict and wouldn’t be enough to turn the tide. “It would be a race to see who could arm – and I think with their interior lines, [Russian-backed separatists] would have a significant advantage on the ground,” he said.
The White House has made a similar argument since as early as last year, preferring diplomacy and non-lethal assistance and citing concerns that lethal aid could provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin to use it as a pretext for a full-scale invasion.
In the wake of the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, lawmakers began pushing in earnest for the Obama administration to provide lethal assistance to Ukrainian forces as they battled Russian-backed separatists. At the end of December, Obama signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act into law, but explicitly stated it does “not signal a change in the Administration’s sanctions policy.” Yet, as ceasefire agreements continue to crumble under intense fighting, and Ukraine’s government continues to directly lobby officials in Washington to go beyond the non-lethal assistance the U.S. has been providing, the issue may be reaching a watershed.
Lawmakers didn’t hold back in tying the White House’s indecision to a lack of clarity on its overall national security strategy.
“We urge you to lead Europe in challenging this assault on international order, lest our foreign policy be held hostage by the lowest common denominator of European consensus,” they wrote. “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.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct Rep. Devin Nunes’ name.