Lawmakers from both parties on Tuesday slammed President Obama’s continuing refusal to approve lethal arms for Ukraine, saying Tuesday that U.S. credibility is falling as Russian-backed rebels gain ground in their fight against the former Soviet republic’s government.
Mr. Obama has not ruled out providing defensive weapons, which Congress last year authorized him to do, but administration officials offered no clue on when Mr. Obama might make a final decision.
“We’re still reviewing it, it’s still an option,” Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I hope soon, but I can’t put a timetable on it.”
Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said the goal is to forge a lasting cease-fire between Ukrainian forces and the Russian-backed rebels, arguing that’s the best chance for long-term stability. She said the U.S. wants to see both sides honor a cease-fire reached earlier this year.
But senators on both sides of the aisle said negotiations for a settlement of the Ukraine crisis have been “a disaster.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said there have already been “about 1,000 violations” of the cease-fire, which he said suggests little hope for diplomacy to prevail.
“We keep working on this aspirational basis while Russia works effectively to keep taking Ukrainian land,” Mr. Menendez said. “I don’t get it. Unless you change the calculus for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, this is going to continue.”
Russian forces and separatists invaded Crimea more than a year ago, eventually annexing the strategic peninsula. Since then, about 6,000 Ukrainians have been killed in battles for territory across eastern Ukraine. Hundreds of Russian soldiers have also lost their lives, though the numbers are less clear as Russia tries to hide how many of its fighters are dying, Ms. Nuland said.
The second Minsk cease-fire, essentially a rehashing of a cease-fire signed in the fall that did not hold, was signed February 12. Despite that agreement, Russian-backed rebels continued to fight to secure a major railway hub, Debaltsevo.
“The determination of the rebels to secure Debaltsevo, despite the fact that the Minsk cease-fire agreement requires them to withdraw to a demarcation line established last September, shows that Putin has no intention of honoring the cease-fire,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican.
Ms. Nuland countered that the cease-fire is holding in “many” areas of the conflict zone, though she acknowledged fighting has continued elsewhere. Just in the last few days, she said Russia has moved tanks, armored vehicles and rocket launchers over the border into Eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told reporters in Kiev Tuesday that both government and rebel forces have pulled back most of their heavy weapons in the east, but other top Ukrainian officials accused the separatist rebels of obstructing monitors who are attempting to verify observance of the pullback.
Ms. Nuland said Moscow must recommit itself to the cease-fire in the next few days, including removing weapons and allowing unrestricted access for officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Leading European allies, led by Germany, have opposed supplying the Kiev government with offensive weapons, for fear of escalating the conflict, but senators on Tuesday said lethal arms for Kiev’s embattled government are the next key step.
Mr. Corker said the U.S. has a duty to help Ukrainians after reaching an agreement in 1994 which saw the U.S. pledge to defend the country in exchange for Ukraine ceding its nuclear weapons.
Senators said that put U.S. leadership at stake.
“We’re in an era where our allies don’t trust us and our enemies don’t fear us,” said Sen. David Perdue, Georgia Republican.
But Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, said Ukrainian members of parliament have told her they disagree.
“They weren’t sure the conflict could be escalated too much worse,” she said.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.
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