Gen. Philip Breedlove, the top U.S. military commander in Europe, now favors arming Ukrainian troops with defensive weapons, but the Obama administration has yet to decide whether to send lethal aid to a country that has been at war for nearly a year with Russian-backed separatists.
The New York Times on Sunday, citing unnamed sources, said top administration officials support a fresh look at the possible delivery of arms to Ukrainian forces, which have suffered a series of loses in recent weeks.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who will be in Kiev on Thursday, and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are open to new discussions about lethal assistance, the Times reported. Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also supports sending defensive weapons to Ukrainian forces, the paper said.
However, The Associated Press reported that President Barack Obama continues to have reservations about escalating the conflict. An administration official told The AP that Obama is worried about starting a proxy war with Russia and also has doubts about the Ukrainian military's capacity for effectively using high-powered weaponry. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Obama worries that no amount of arming the Ukrainians would put them on par with Russian military capabilities.
Ukraine has long sought lethal aid in the fight against the separatists, who NATO says have received significant military assistance from Moscow, ranging from anti-aircraft equipment and drones to heavy arms and on-the-ground Russian advisers.
Moscow has denied providing assistance to the insurgents and has warned that the delivery of weapons to the government forces would only serve to escalate the conflict.
Opponents of providing lethal assistance say such support could intensify the conflict in Ukraine and hinder efforts toward a political solutions. Supporters say a more lethal Ukrainian military could give Moscow pause.
Susan E. Rice, Obama's national security adviser, has resisted proposals to provide lethal assitance, but she now is prepared to reconsider the matter, according to the Times.
Meanwhile, in an independent report issued on Monday, eight former senior American officials urged the United States to send $3 billion in defensive arms and equipment to Ukraine.
Retired Adm. James G. Stavridis, the former top NATO military commander; Michèle A. Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official; and Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, are among the officials who authored the report calling for more robust action.
"A firm Western response can bolster Kyiv's ability to deter further Russian attacks," the report says, using the Ukrainian name for the capital. "Moreover, if confronted by a strong Western response in support of Ukraine, the Kremlin will be far less tempted to challenge the security or territorial integrity of other states, including NATO members Estonia and Latvia."
So far, the U.S. has limited support to Ukraine to nonlethal items such as night vision goggles and first-aid equipment.
While western sanctions have harmed the Russian economy, they have not prompted Moscow to change course in Ukraine. In March of last year, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. Since then relations between the West and Russia have steadily deteriorated.