More than a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and the Pentagon began receiving requests from Ukraine for military assistance, the Obama administration is “still working on reviewing” the option of lethal aid, officials told senators on Tuesday.
“We’re still working in the interagency group on reviewing a number of options including lethal defensive weapons, but I can’t give you a timetable on when we might have a decision on additional assistance,” Brian McKeon, the principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a Tuesday hearing.
The senators repeatedly grilled McKeon, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and other officials on the delayed decision, but the witnesses gave no new information on the reasons for the delay or when a decision may be made.
At least 6,000 Ukrainians and some 400 to 500 Russians have been killed in the conflict since violence broke out in the wake of protests in Ukraine in November of 2013, according to Obama administration officials. While the U.S. has provided some millions in assistance — with $513.5 million for Ukraine in the White House’s fiscal 2016 budget request — it has thus far been limited to non-lethal aid, some as simple as radios, body armor, sleeping mats and night vision goggles. Since nearly the beginning of the conflict, Ukrainian leaders have been directly lobbying President Barack Obama — and the U.S. Congress — for lethal defensive assistance.
At the end of 2014, Obama signed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act into law, and last week, leaders in the House on both sides of the aisle urged the administration to use the authorities it afforded him to move on lethal aid, and quickly. Top Obama administration officials, from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to Defense Secretary Ash Carter have said in recent weeks, “We should absolutely consider providing lethal aid.”
On Monday, the German ambassador to the U.S. told the Associated Press that the White House had already made the quiet decision last month to hold off on lethal aid to Ukraine. But in the Tuesday hearing, the administration officials continued to reiterate that the option remained under consideration.
The National Security Council declined to respond to the status of the decision, or what considerations remain to be made before it can be reached.
“As we have repeatedly said, we continually assess our policies to ensure they are responsive, appropriate and calibrated to achieve our objectives, and our focus from the outset of the crisis has been on supporting Ukraine and on pursuing a diplomatic solution that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh told Defense One.
Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez told Defense One, “We have been working closely with the interagency and Ukraine on requests for military assistance since the crisis began; military assistance began flowing in March (MREs) and it continues. As you know, the focus now is on nonlethal military assistance, and that policy has not changed.”
Nuland noted Tuesday that the U.S. has provided critical, if non-lethal resources. But, she added, “We haven’t answered the entire shopping list from the Ukrainians.”
Lainez declined to itemize that list, but in February, former Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby defined defensive lethal aid as “those items, those weapons that allow them — that are defensive in nature, that they are not designed for, would not be overly effective in conducting offensive operations against an armed foe.” McKeon pointed to critical counter-mortar radars as a successful example. The Pentagon approved the request in late October, and they were “delivered, trained, and fielded in two months,” he said, arguing they have saved lives.
But many other items that have been approved for delivery have been hobbled by logistical delays. “In some instances, it has been unacceptably slow,” McKeon acknowledged.
So slow that the sluggish delivery to Ukraine was the topic of one of his first conversations with the new defense secretary, Ash Carter. “The new secretary is pressing us on this,” McKeon said, quoting Carter as saying, “‘Let’s start a new policy — let’s not promise assistance unless we can deliver it quickly.”
Many senators on the committee from both parties expressed frustration with what they characterized as feet dragging from the White House in responding to both Russian aggression and Ukraine’s requests.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., tied the delays to a broader “fecklessness” in Obama’s national security strategy — as many other Republican lawmakers have done, but with uncharacteristic heat.
“Russia has invaded Ukraine, we agreed to protect their territorial sovereignty,” Corker said. “Why would we be so feckless, feckless, in agreeing to something back in 1994 and yet be unwilling to give them the defensive weaponry that they can utilize, not more than they could utilize?”
“Surely on the heels of us never doing the things we said we would do with the free Syrian rebels and now the world being very aware of this Budapest Memorandum, and knowing the administration — I assume that this is another decision memo that sits on the president’s desk, undecided,” he continued, “This has to have affected our credibility with allies around the world.
“How damaging is our lack of ability to make a simple decision? They certainly have complex outcomes, but the decisions themselves are relatively simple.”