NEW YORK — The Pentagon and US intelligence agencies are developing plans that would enable the Obama administration to provide specific locations of surface-to-air missiles controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine so the Ukrainian government could destroy them, American officials said.
But the proposal has not yet been debated in the White House, a senior administration official said. It is unclear whether President Obama, who has approved limited intelligence sharing with Ukraine, will agree to give more precise information about potential military targets, a step that would involve the United States more deeply in the conflict.
Already, the question of what kind of intelligence support to give the Ukrainian government has become part of a larger debate within the administration about how directly to confront President Vladimir Putin of Russia and how big a role Washington should take in trying to stop Russia’s rapid delivery of powerful weapons to eastern Ukraine.
At the core of the debate, said several officials — who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the policy deliberations are still in progress — is whether the US goal should be simply to shore up a Ukrainian government reeling from the separatist attacks or to send a stern message to Putin by aggressively helping Ukraine target the missiles Russia has provided.
Those missiles have taken down at least five aircraft in the past 10 days, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
A senior State Department official said Saturday Secretary of State John Kerry supported sharing intelligence on the locations of those surface-to-air missiles.
Since the downing of Flight 17, a civilian jet, the flow of heavy arms into eastern Ukraine has drastically increased, the Pentagon and the State Department said Friday, citing US intelligence reports.
The Obama administration is already sharing with the Ukrainians satellite photographs and other evidence of the movement of troops and equipment along the Ukrainian-Russian border. But a senior administration official acknowledged late Friday that the data were “historical in nature,” hours or even days old, and not timely enough to use in carrying out airstrikes or other direct attacks.
“We’ve been cautious to date about things that could directly hit Russia — principally its territory” but also its equipment, the official said. A proposal to give the Ukrainians real-time information “hasn’t gotten to the president yet,” the official said, in part because the White House has been focused on rallying support among European allies for more stringent economic sanctions against Moscow and on gaining access for investigators to the Malaysia Airlines crash site.
But the official added that the decision on whether to provide targeting information would soon become “part of the intel mix.”
The debate about providing information about potential military targets gives the first insight into the Obama administration’s thinking on long-term strategies to bolster Ukraine, counter Russia, and reassure nervous Eastern European nations, some of which have joined NATO in recent years.
Plans to share more precise targeting information with Ukraine have the strong backing of senior Pentagon officials and would fit broadly into Obama’s emerging national security doctrine of supporting allied and partner nations in defending their territory without direct US military involvement.
Several senior US military and intelligence officials are arguing that if Putin does not encounter significant resistance to Russia’s moves in Ukraine, he may be emboldened to go further.