The Pentagon and U.S. 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 target them for destruction, 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 already 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, D.C., 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 in progress — is whether the U.S. 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.
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Those missiles have taken down at least five aircraft in the past 10 days, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Flow of arms
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 U.S. 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.
The debate over 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 U.S. military involvement.
Several senior U.S. 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. And a senior State Department official said Saturday that Secretary of State John Kerry supported sharing intelligence on the locations of surface-to-air missiles that Russia has supplied the separatists.
Providing the location of weaponry and military equipment for possible destruction — something the United States does for Iraq in its battle against Islamic extremists, for example — would not be technologically difficult. “We think we could do it easily and be very effective,” a senior military official involved in the discussions said. “But there are issues of escalation with the Russians, and the decision about whether it’s wise to do it” is complex.
Another senior official said there were questions whether the Ukrainian military, even if given targeting coordinates, had the reach and the precision to strike Russian-supplied anti-aircraft batteries. The trucks transporting the missiles move frequently, often back and forth across the border. And if any strikes missed their targets, they could cause civilian casualties or land in Russia, giving Putin an excuse to enlarge the conflict.
Ukraine is not a NATO ally, complicating the question of how to support its government.
“The debate is over how much to help Ukraine without provoking Russia,” said a senior official participating in the U.S. discussions.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on Thursday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seemed to allude to the internal arguments when he said: “We have a very active, ongoing process to think through what support we may provide to Ukraine. That debate is ongoing.”
The Obama administration has given Ukraine about $33 million in nonlethal support such as bomb-disposal equipment, radios and engineering equipment, and it plans to provide night-vision goggles. But there are bipartisan calls in Congress to supply weapons, ammunition, military vehicles and training as well.
“How can you possibly sit by and not give them military assistance with all the Russian arms flowing in?” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Saturday.
The shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane, on top of Russia’s earlier shipments of heavy weaponry, were a perilous escalation of the crisis that threatened to menace all of Europe and the United States, Dempsey said.
“You’ve got a Russian government that has made a conscious decision to use its military force inside another sovereign nation to achieve its objectives,” he said. “They clearly are on a path to assert themselves differently not just in Eastern Europe, but Europe in the main, and toward the United States.”