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White House Urged To Re-Think Its Approach On Ukraine


Let's examine a huge challenge for the Obama administration that helped define 2014 and seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. It is finding a way to help Ukraine defend its territory from pro-Russian separatists. The fear has been doing too much could embolden Russia's Vladimir Putin. But the United States is now considering a change in strategy that could mean supplying Ukraine with defensive weapons - things like anti-tank missiles. Here's NPR's Michele Keleman.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Up to now, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with night vision goggles, body armor and other nonlethal aid. But eight former Pentagon and State Department officials say more is needed and soon. Former ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer says he and his co-authors are just back from NATO and Ukraine, where they heard about the need for anti-armor weapons.

STEVEN PIFER: The Ukrainian stockpile of such weapons is at least 20 years old. We were told about three-quarters of those weapons simply do not work. And both in NATO and in Ukraine, we heard that they've seen a strong flow of Russian armor - tanks and armored personnel carriers - from Russia into eastern Ukraine. I think one comment we heard at NATO was and they're not even really bothering to do much to try to hide it anymore.

KELEMEN: Pifer says he believes this is a, quote, "live issue" in the White House now, and officials are seriously considering the recommendations in the report. One concern often raised by administration officials, though, is whether shipping weapons will simply provoke Russian president Vladimir Putin. Former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who's president of the Brookings Institution, says there's another way to look at this.

STROBE TALBOTT: There is. And we all have to recognize it - a danger of some degree of escalation here. But Putin seems to be bent on escalation. His overall strategy is essentially a double game - talk across the table and kill on the ground in Ukraine.

KELEMEN: And if the U.S. doesn't up the ante, as Talbott puts it, that will just encourage Putin to keep rolling. He and his co-authors don't think U.S. military assistance will help Ukraine defeat Russia, but they argue it is time to raise the cost for Russian aggression. And they think the timing of the report is key. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki says the U.S. is worried about - as she puts it - the escalating violence by separatists in Ukraine. And the administration is constantly reviewing its policy.

JEN PSAKI: Our focus does remain on pursuing a solution through diplomatic means. And we are always evaluating other options that will help create space for a negotiated solution to the crisis.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State John Kerry plans to visit Kiev on Thursday and then go on to a security conference in Munich, where he'll be meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Michele Keleman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.