American military officials and diplomats say the arms, which they characterized as defensive, are meant to deter aggressive actions by Moscow, which the U.S. and others say has provided tanks and other sophisticated armaments as well as military advisers to rebels fighting the Kyiv government. […]
A senior administration official said there has been no decision on the armaments proposal and it wasn’t discussed at a high-level White House meeting on Russia last week. The official said President Donald Trump hasn’t been briefed on the plan and his position isn’t known. […]
A Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Michelle L. Baldanza, said the U.S. has not “ruled out the option” of providing “lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine.” U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has endorsed the plan, according to U.S. officials.
The timing of the scoop here seems no accident: on the very same day that U.S. officials were dishing about arming Ukraine, Vice President Mike Pence was doing the rounds in Eastern Europe to reassure Russia’s anxious neighbors. In Estonia, Pence delivered a rousing speech celebrating NATO and denouncing Russia for seeking “to redraw international borders by force.” From there, the Vice President went on to Georgia and Montenegro, both countries that have been on the receiving end of Russia’s aggression.
Seen in that context, the strategically leaked rumors about arming Ukraine look like an attempt to reinforce Pence’s message that Trump will not abandon European allies threatened by Russia. And indeed, if Trump follows through on the plans to arm Ukraine, he will prove his bona fides in standing up to Russia in a way that his predecessor never did. (President Obama, after all, consistently resisted the advice of his own officials and Congress in refusing to send lethal weapons to Ukraine).
That said, and despite the support for the proposal from many quarters of the Trump Administration, this is no easy call. Arming Ukraine would inevitably further poison ties with Russia, but on the basis of a contentious gamble: that lethal weapons would “increase the costs” of Russian aggression and drive Moscow to the bargaining table. President Obama doubted that assumption, thinking that lethal aid would only needlessly escalate the conflict; he was joined in that view by France and Germany. If President Trump decides to send lethal weapons, he risks further jeopardizing relations with Paris and Berlin as well as Moscow—all for the sake of a country and conflict that he has shown little interest in making a priority.
Ultimately, the decision could come down to two conflicting impulses within the President: his desire to be tougher and stronger than Obama on the one hand, and his keen desire to improve relations with Moscow on the other. But with the U.S.-Russia relationship in a downward spiral anyway, Trump could plausibly conclude he has nothing to lose by turning up the heat.
By Sean Keeley, The American Interest