Obama weighs sending lethal assistance to Ukraine


• Ukraine solders fought Monday to avoid being surrounded by rebel forces as they defended Debaltseve, a strategic railway hub. The city lies between the rebel strongholds of Luhansk and Donetsk, and almost 2,000 residents have fled in the last few days alone.

• Donetsk came under heavy, sustained shelling. City authorities said Monday 15 civilians had been killed over the weekend in the fighting, while Ukraine authorities said five soldiers had been killed and 29 wounded overall in the east in the past day alone.

• The leader of the separatists in Donetsk, Alexander Zakharchenko, said new mobilization plans aim to swell the ranks of rebels to 100,000 fighters. It’s not clear how many fighters the rebels have now or how many able-bodied men are still available in rebel areas. Zakharchenko didn’t say where he aimed to find apparently tens of thousands of troops.

— Associated Press

President Barack Obama is reconsidering his opposition to giving Ukraine defensive weapons and other lethal aid to help its struggling military repel Russian-backed rebels, a possible escalation that has had strong support from many in his national security team.

The shift suggests the White House is growing increasingly concerned that its reliance on punishing Russia with economic sanctions isn’t doing enough to change President Vladimir Putin’s thinking about backing fighters in ethnic-Russian eastern Ukraine.

A senior Obama administration official said the president still sees pitfalls in plans to arm to Ukraine, and a decision on the matter is not imminent. However, the official said a recent spike in violence between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists has sparked a fresh examination of U.S. policy.

The president’s worries about sending higher-powered equipment to Ukraine are threefold, according to the official. He sees risk in starting a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia, which the West accuses of supplying rebels in eastern Ukraine. He is worried that the Ukrainian military may not be well-trained enough to effectively use U.S. equipment and believes no amount of arms would put Ukraine on par with the Russian military.

Obama has weighed sending lethal aid to Ukraine before, but has always decided against taking that step. But holding fast to that position has left him isolated within his administration, given the support for sending the Ukrainians defensive assistance from high-ranking officials including Secretary of State John Kerry and NATO Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove.

On Monday, several former U.S. diplomatic and military officials released a report calling on the White House and Congress to give Ukraine $3 billion in military assistance over the next three years. Among the officials who wrote the report were former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer and former undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy.

National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the White House is “constantly assessing our policies in Ukraine.”

“Although our focus remains on pursuing a solution through diplomatic means, we are always evaluating other options that will help create space for a negotiated solution to the crisis,” she said.

Kerry plans to be in Kiev on Thursday to meet with Ukrainian leaders, though administration officials downplayed the notion that his trip would coincide with new announcements on U.S. policy.

Obama has sought to coordinate the U.S. response to the Ukraine crisis with Europe, which he has long considered to have a closer stake in the fight. An official said the president wants to discuss the prospect of lethal aid with his European counterparts, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is due to visit Washington next week.

But Merkel said Monday that Germany will not provide weapons to Ukraine and prefers economic sanctions and negotiations to “solve or at least mitigate the conflict.”

“It is my firm belief that this conflict cannot be solved militarily,” Merkel said after meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest.