Pressure on Obama to Arm Kiev

The American government is considering supplying weapons to Ukraine, which has to cede ever more territory to pro-Russian separatists in the east. The death toll is rising, the Ukrainian military is fighting on a number of fronts and is in danger of becoming trapped near the railway node of Debaltseve.

The situation has become so urgent for the Ukrainians that in Washington, there are calls to start supplying them with weapons. Until now, President Barack Obama has been unwilling to cross this line for fear that Americans and Russians would end up on a slippery slope and increasingly be set in opposition to one another. Even now he is still hesitating. He doesn’t want to start a “proxy war.” That’s a war which America and Russia are allowing their allies to fight, while they themselves remain in the background.

Obama prefers a diplomatic solution. He is trying to rein in the Russian President Putin by means of economic sanctions. Kiev is being given military support, but it doesn’t consist of weapons. Rather, it consists of bulletproof vests, night vision equipment and food rations.

Due to the course of the conflict, Obama is under increasing pressure to change his stance on the supply of weapons. A ceasefire agreement signed in September has become a dead letter. The separatists are on the offensive. They are using heavy weapons such as tanks, multiple rocket systems, artillery and armored vehicles. The Ukrainian armed forces are taking a battering and are losing ground.

It seems unlikely that their chances will improve. On Monday, rebel leader Aleksander Zachartsjenko said that he was planning a general mobilization. “A general mobilization is planned in the DNR in 10 days. Ten thousand men will be called up. The joint army of the DNR and the LNR will be 100,000 men strong.” Military analysts are concerned that the mobilization is a cover for more Russian military in the area. The Kremlin continues to deny it, but Russia supports the rebels with a large quantity of military equipment and is trying to sneak troops across the border.

All of these developments raise calls on the American side for arms to be supplied to the cornered Ukrainians. No offensive weapons, just defensive ones such as anti-tank rockets, exploratory drones, armored Humvees and radar systems, which can pinpoint the location of heavy weaponry and rocket launchers.

NATO commander Philip Breedlove and the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, support sending weapons. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is open to discussing the idea, according to American government officials. Obama has not yet made a decision. Apart from the fact that he is afraid of being sucked into a proxy war, he believes that America will never be able to arm Ukrainians in such a way that they can defend themselves against the separatists supported by neighboring Russia.

Obama wants to discuss the question with European leaders first. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to arrive in Washington next week. On Monday, she said that Germany would not be participating in the supply of weapons. “This conflict can’t be resolved by military means.” In diplomatic and military circles in The Hague, it is deemed highly unlikely that the Netherlands will participate in the supply of weapons.

The problem for America and Europe is that their sanctions don’t appear to be particularly effective in restraining Putin. Even the sharp fall in the price of oil, which is costing Russia a lot of money, is not making him any more flexible. Like a gambler, he seems to want to recover any losses by doubling his stakes. He struck out at NATO only last week.

Soldiers and a Ukrainian government official confirmed to this newspaper on Monday that at least nine Russian soldiers had been taken prisoner last Friday.

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