Ukraine’s interim government has asked Washington to provide its military forces with arms, ammunition and intelligence support, senior U.S. officials said, but the U.S. has balked at providing lethal aid for now, wary of inflaming tensions with Russia.
The U.S. response reflects the Pentagon’s reluctance to be seen as directly supporting the Ukrainian military during the country’s standoff with Russian forces, which have seized the Ukrainian region of Crimea. The potential risks were underscored by Russia’s move Thursday to conduct another military exercise near Ukraine.
Washington wants to show its support for the country’s interim leaders without further antagonizing an unpredictable Moscow or inadvertently emboldening the Ukrainian military to take steps that could spark a more direct conflict.
“It’s not a forever ‘no,’ it’s a ‘no for now,’ ” a senior U.S. official said.
The military request coincided with this week’s visit by Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and just before Secretary of State John Kerry meets his Russian counterpart in a last-ditch bid for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. A referendum Sunday could decide whether the region of Crimea breaks away from Ukraine and joins Russia.
In a detailed request for U.S. military assistance, the Ukrainian government asked the Pentagon to provide arms and ammunition, communications gear, intelligence support, aviation fuel and night-vision goggles, along with other items, according to officials briefed on the emergency Ukrainian appeal.
The Pentagon has agreed for now to only provide the Ukrainians with supplies of U.S. military rations known as “Meals Ready to Eat,” or MREs, officials said. MREs were part of the Ukrainian request. The MREs could start shipping within days, officials said.
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On Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart, Acting Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh, who asked for U.S. technical advice on humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief efforts, the Pentagon said. Mr. Hagel told Mr. Tenyukh that the U.S. would take any Ukrainian requests for assistance into consideration.
After that phone call, the Ukrainian government submitted a detailed request for military aid, including for “sizable” amounts of arms and ammunition, a senior U.S. official said.
“We are not contemplating lethal assistance at this moment,” said the senior U.S. official. “In fact, we have been clear with them that their focus needs to be on economic assistance.”
The official said the Pentagon hasn’t ruled out providing the Ukrainians with lethal military equipment in the future. “We have not told them flat ‘no,’ ” the official added.
Any U.S. military assistance to Ukraine could fuel the Kremlin’s suspicions that the U.S. orchestrated the revolution there as a way to draw Ukraine toward the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and militarily encroach on Russia.
U.S. officials wouldn’t specify why the Ukrainians wanted the military supplies.
In a report to Parliament on Tuesday, Mr. Tenyukh said the country’s armed forces had been neglected and underfinanced since independence in 1991.
“Today, the armed forces have only two components: tactics and fighting spirit,” he told lawmakers.
Ukrainian forces had been put on combat-ready alert, “but the result is disappointing,” he said.
Mr. Tenyukh said around half of the army’s 41,000 infantry should be ready for combat. “In reality, just 6,000 are ready,” he said.
Mr. Tenyukh said Russian armed forces that carried out exercises on Ukraine’s eastern border last week were “several times larger,” including 220,000 men and 1,800 tanks.
The Pentagon has been reluctant to get directly involved in Ukraine’s standoff with Russia, wary of widening the crisis.
The Pentagon has, however, stepped up military operations in Eastern Europe to reassure anxious allies, from boosting joint training of NATO forces in Poland to increasing air patrols over Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.
The Pentagon has also suspended military cooperation with Russia.