Waiting on the president: As pressure to supply arms to Ukraine is growing in the USA, Obama is once again undecided, and now Chancellor Merkel comes for a visit.
When Barack Obama receives Angela Merkel this Monday in the Oval Office, it will be all about the question: "Should the West supply weapons to Ukraine?" The chancellor is still opposed, and the U.S. president can once again ponder over his foreign and security policies.
Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Kiev has urged Washington to provide weapons. President Petro Poroshenko was bitter when he stated to Congress in September that, "blankets, night vision goggles are also important, but one cannot win the war with blankets," when referring to previous American aid shipments.
Obama stood by his "no" at the time. Vice President Joe Biden stated it for the record again on the weekend at the Munich Security Conference. Nevertheless, the rhetoric in Washington has changed dramatically within a few days.
Last week, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said that the United States is currently focused on "nonlethal" aid to Ukraine, but the admiral added, "We've said for months now that we continue to review and to consider all requests by the Ukrainian government for assistance, lethal and nonlethal. That remains true today."
The designated future Pentagon chief was more direct: "But I incline in the direction of providing them with arms, including, to get to what I'm sure your question is, lethal arms," said Ashton Carter at a Senate hearing on Monday.
The physicist, who worked in the Pentagon under Bill Clinton, is to replace Department of Defense Chief Chuck Hagel, but Ashton's demand was probably a little too offensive for Obama. The president's press secretary, Josh Earnest immediately clarified, "Dr. Carter mentioned in his hearing is that he’s a strong believer in the chain of command, and he certainly understands that the commander in chief is the top of that chain of command and that a decision like this will be made by the commander in chief."
But the idea has been set in motion. Susan Rice, the national security adviser to President Barack Obama, is considering the delivery of more deadly weapons to the Ukrainian army reported The New York Times today. The same goes for Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the military commander of NATO.
Obama Under Pressure in His Own Country
Now everything is up to Obama. Such signals finding their way into the public eye reads like a test run: How will Congress, the public and NATO partners react to such considerations? How will Vladimir Putin react? And what does Angela Merkel, who views Washington as a crucial mediator against the Kremlin chief, have to say on the matter?
In a rare gesture of bipartisanship, 15 senators supported a call by the Republican Rob Portman (Ohio) and Democrat Dick Durbin (Illinois) for the U.S. and NATO to provide increased military assistance to Kiev in the face of "escalating Russian aggression."
They stand strongly for defense equipment and list anti-tank weapons, radar equipment to combat artillery bombardment ("counter-battery radar") and armed Humvees. Furthermore, additional training efforts are needed to strengthen the Ukrainian army.
The same goes for a 17-page study by renowned security experts, such as former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Michele Flournoy, who could take command of the Pentagon should a Hillary Clinton presidency occur. "There is no real ceasefire," it states. "Moscow currently seeks to create a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine as a means to pressure and destabilize the Ukrainian government."
The authors call for the same defense equipment as the 15 senators, as well as drones as a means of electronic defense against enemy drones. The study does not say whether the Ukrainian military intended for armed or unarmed unmanned aircraft.
Talbott and company are very specific regarding the scope of military assistance. The U.S. government should send military aid worth $1 billion "as soon as possible" in the current fiscal year. For fiscal years 2016 and 2017, Washington must provide weapons, equipment and other support, each amounting to $1 billion.
Those who talk to White House staff get the assurance that decisions have yet to be made. "Everything is taken into consideration."* But then comes the question of whether one could explain what strategy Chancellor Merkel has in mind for dealing with Moscow, if she is against arms sales to Kiev in accordance with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. "Do you believe Berlin, that the Russians will cease their aggression in eastern Ukraine if the West remains passive?"
Nevertheless, even Washington has no discernable strategy. Sanctions against Russia are effective but haven't forced Putin to change course. The U.S. government would like to have more arrows in its quiver, including sanctions against banking and financial sectors. But Washington also knows that such measures would find little favor in Europe.
And arms sales? But then wouldn't Russia just send more artillery and tanks to eastern Ukraine? Moscow would have the advantage of proximity in such an arms race.
"I have no doubt that additional assistance of [the] economic kind and others – other kind will be going to Ukraine," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday. He would not comment specifically on the issue of arms sales. Kerry only said, "[w]e do so understanding that there is no military solution; the solution is a political, diplomatic one."
But so far, all hopes of a political or diplomatic solution have been deceptive. Pressure grows in Washington, and not only among Republicans, for the White House to finally send weapons. On the other hand, Merkel will try to persuade Obama away from this previously drawn line. The president appears indecisive yet again.
* Editor's note: The original quotations, accurately translated, could not be verified.