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US rethinks arming Ukraine’s troops

Option debated as rebels advance

Ukrainian soldiers passed through Artemivsk, in the Donetsk region, before facing Russia-backed rebels in Debaltseve.
Ukrainian soldiers passed through Artemivsk, in the Donetsk region, before facing Russia-backed rebels in Debaltseve. (MANU BRABO/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — With Russia-backed separatists pressing their attacks in Ukraine, NATO’s military commander, General Philip M. Breedlove, now supports providing defensive weapons and equipment to Kiev’s beleaguered forces, and an array of administration and military officials appear to be edging toward that position, US officials said Sunday.

President Obama has made no decisions on providing such lethal assistance. But after a series of striking reversals that Ukraine’s forces have suffered in recent weeks, the Obama administration is taking a fresh look at the question of military assistance.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who plans to visit Kiev on Thursday, is open to new discussions about providing lethal aid, as is General Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, officials said.

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In recent months, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, has resisted proposals to provide lethal assistance, several officials said. But one official said that she was now prepared to reconsider the issue.

Fearing that the provision of defensive weapons might tempt President Vladimir Putin of Russia to raise the stakes, the White House has limited US aid to “nonlethal” items, including body armor, night-vision goggles, first aid kits, and engineering equipment.

But the failure of economic sanctions to dissuade Russia from sending heavy weapons and military personnel to eastern Ukraine is pushing the issue of defensive weapons back into discussion.

“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,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

Fueling the broader debate over policy is an independent report to be issued Monday by eight former senior US officials, who are to urge the United States to send $3 billion in defensive arms and equipment to Ukraine, including antiarmor missiles, reconnaissance drones, armored Humvees, and radars that can determine the location of enemy rocket and artillery fire.

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Michèle A. Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official who was among those considered to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, joined in preparing the report. Others include James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral who served as the top NATO military commander, and Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to NATO during Obama’s first term.

Russia-backed separatists kept up their assault on the key railway town of Debaltseve on Sunday, Associated Press reported. Ukraine’s government said 13 of its troops were killed and another 20 wounded in a day of fighting across the east. There was no word on any rebel casualties.

The separatists attacked several villages near Debaltseve, between the two rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, said a Ukranian government spokesman, Vladimir Polevoi said. Capturing the town would further consolidate the rebels’ control in eastern Ukraine.

More than a dozen Ukrainian tanks and other heavy military vehicles, including a rocket launcher, heading toward the city Sunday in an apparent effort to reinforce the government troops.

As fighting escalates near Debaltseve, a growing wave of civilians are fleeing their homes, taking the risk of being struck by stray projectiles on their way and often leaving family members behind.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said about 1,000 of Debaltseve’s residents have been evacuated in recent days. Many end up at a government-owned holiday camp in the resort town of Svyatohirskt.

Fighting has been most intense near Debaltseve, which has been almost encircled by rebels. Only one road remains open for escape, and that has been targeted by artillery fire.

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Buses are being dispatched daily to Debaltseve by Ukrainian authorities to carry out as many civilians as possible.