WASHINGTON – The United States will provide $46 million in new security assistance to the Ukraine's military but stop short of fulfilling an urgent request from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for lethal aid to help his country fight Russian-backed separatists.
Poroshenko pleaded his case during remarks Thursday to a rare joint meeting of Congress. While he thanked the U.S. for the nonlethal equipment it is providing his country's beleaguered military, he said more was needed to stop provocations near the Russian border.
"Blankets and night vision goggles are important, but one cannot win a war with a blanket," he said during a 40-minute address that was repeatedly interrupted by applause from lawmakers.
Hours later, Poroshenko arrived at the White House for discussions with President Obama, a meeting meant to send a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the West's support for Ukraine.
"The picture of President Poroshenko sitting in the Oval Office will be worth at least a thousand words — both in English and Russian," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Ukraine and Kremlin-backed separatists have been locked in a months-long fight for control of eastern Ukrainian cities that sit on Russia's border, aggression that followed Russia's annexation of the strategically important Crimean Peninsula.
Ahead of Thursday's White House meeting, U.S. officials said Obama would announce a security assistance packages that will provide Ukrainian forces with countermortar radar to help detect incoming artillery fire. The U.S. also will provide vehicles and patrol boats, body armor and heavy engineering equipment.
Despite some support for Poroshenko's request within the Obama administration, officials said the president continues to oppose lethal assistance and does not envision directly arming the Ukrainian military as an effective way to end the conflict.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also pressed Obama to ramp up military aid to Ukraine. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was expected to vote Thursday afternoon on bipartisan legislation that would increase military and nonmilitary assistance, as well as impose broad sanctions on Russia's defense, energy and financial sectors.
"President Putin has upended the international order, and a slap on the wrist will not deter future Russian provocations," the committee's chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said. "In the face of Russian aggression, Ukraine needs our steadfast and determined support, not an ambiguous response. We are left with no choice but to apply tough sanctions against Russia, coupled with military assistance to Ukraine."
The legislation would authorize $350 million in fiscal 2015 for military assistance, including anti-tank and anti-armor weapons, ammunition, counter-artillery radars and surveillance drones.
The U.S. and Western allies have condemned Russia's provocations in Ukraine, levying a series of economic sanctions and restricting Putin's involvement in some international organizations. But the penalties have done little to shift Putin's calculus. In recent weeks, the West has accused Russia of moving troops and equipment across its border with Ukraine, though the Kremlin denies such involvement.
Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists inked a cease-fire agreement Sept. 5, though the deal has been violated repeatedly. On Wednesday, shelling in rebel-held parts of the east killed at least 12 civilians, as a top leader of pro-Russian rebels rejected Ukrainian legislation meant to end the unrest by granting self-rule to large swaths of the east.
Poroshenko, a billionaire businessman, won Ukraine's presidential election in May after his country's Russian-backed leader fled amid popular protests. Western leaders have praised Poroshenko's commitment to reform, and Obama will press him Thursday for more aggressive political and economic actions that can stabilize the fragile nation.
At the heart of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia is the former Soviet republic's desire to strengthen ties with Europe. Poroshenko has only deepened those efforts, making a high-profile appearance at the NATO summit this month and overseeing the backing of a deal this week to strengthen economic and political ties with Europe.
The deal lowers trade tariffs between Europe and Ukraine, requires Ukrainian goods to meet European regulatory standards and forces the Kiev government to undertake major political and economic reforms.
Following a vote by Ukrainian lawmakers, Poroshenko called the deal "a first but very decisive step" toward bringing Ukraine fully into the European Union.