(CNSNews.com) – A bill passed by the U.S. Senate on Thursday could, if enacted, supply Ukrainian forces with U.S. weapons for use against Russian tanks in eastern Ukraine, a scenario the Obama administration has been loathe to contemplate.
In addition to providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine, the bipartisan measure would expand sanctions against Russia, posing a further challenge to President Obama who has warned that doing so will disrupt transatlantic unity and benefit President Vladimir Putin.
Throughout the long crisis over Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine, including its annexation of Crimea, Obama has been leery of calls to arm the Ukrainian military, relying on non-lethal assistance only and sanctions against Moscow, in cooperation with the European Union.
Despite the White House stance, the Senate passed the Ukraine Freedom Support Act unanimously, and it now moves to the House of Representatives for further action.
Its provisions include authorizing the president to provide equipment and training for Ukrainian forces “for the purpose of countering offensive weapons and reestablishing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
They specifically include anti-tank and anti-armor weapons, ammunition, counter-artillery radars, optical and guidance and control equipment, and tactical surveillance drones.
The bill was cosponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who after the vote took a dig at the administration over its reaction to the crisis.
“The hesitant U.S. response to Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine threatens to escalate this conflict even further,” Corker said. “Unanimous support for our bill demonstrates a firm commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty and to making sure Putin pays for his assault on freedom and security in Europe.”
The last round of U.S. sanctions imposed against Russia was announced on September 12. That same month Russia signed a ceasefire agreement in which it pledged among other things to withdraw military personnel and equipment from Ukraine and to ensure that the Ukraine side of the international border reverts to Ukrainian control.
Corker said Russia had repeatedly violated those commitments, by backing a rebel election in the east and continuing to support the separatists militarily. (Russia denies it is doing so.)
The new legislation expands sanctions, and provides for lethal military assistance as well as energy, defense sector, and civil society aid.
The administration has worked closely with the E.U. on imposing several rounds of sanctions against Russia, sensitive to the fact that European countries are far more directly impacted by the measures than the U.S. is.
Obama on Thursday reiterated his opposition to any tightening of sanctions that could put the U.S. ahead of the E.U.
Speaking at an Export Council meeting, he stressed the importance of keeping Europe “in lockstep with us” over Ukraine.
“There may be some movement out of Congress for us to get out ahead of Europe further,” he told the trade advisory body. “We have argued that that would be counterproductive. And we may need some help from the business community in making that argument to the soon-to-be chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee [Corker] and others.”
Obama rejected the notion that Putin was winning in the confrontation, saying while his actions may have brought him domestic support, they had been profoundly damaging to the Russian economy.
“Where Putin will succeed is if it creates a rift in the transatlantic relationship,” he warned. “If you start seeing Europe divided from the United States that would be a strategic victory. And I’m intent on preventing that.”
Obama did not mention the key element of the Senate bill, dealing with the arming of Ukraine.
Throughout the year, the administration has resisted calls – from Ukraine, U.S. lawmakers and others – to provide lethal aid for Ukraine as it battles the Moscow-backed rebels. Officials are unenthusiastic about the proposal, while stating repeatedly that the option remains on the table.
‘No military solution’
In Brussels last week, Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the administration’s position when asked about lethal assistance, while pointing out that the U.S. has provided almost $120 million in aid, including non-lethal military equipment such as night vision devices and body armor.
“We continue to increase our [non-lethal] assistance over time and as needed,” he told reporters at NATO headquarters. “And we will continue to consider a range of security assistance requests from the government of Ukraine, but we have been very clear there is no military solution to the crisis.”
Kerry said the administration’s focus “from the outset has been on supplying and supporting Ukraine and on pursuing a diplomatic solution that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and its territorial integrity.”
“No option has been taken off the table, but at this moment, no decision [on lethal support] has been made, and that is not the direction we are moving at this moment,” he said.
Kerry bristled when asked about sanctions having “failed” to change Putin’s conduct.
“I just completely and totally disagree with any premature assumption that it has failed. Has it changed the behavior to date? No. But that is not a statement that it can’t yet, or won’t, or that there aren’t opportunities to move in a different direction.”