WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama welcomed the new leader of embattled Ukraine to the White House, but he stopped short of fulfilling his visitor’s urgent request for lethal aid to fight Russian-backed separatists.
Earlier on Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko renewed his call for American weaponry during an emotional address to a joint meeting of Congress, where his remarks were repeatedly interrupted by applause from lawmakers in both parties. While he expressed appreciation for the non-lethal assistance from the U.S., Poroshenko said it was not enough to quell the violence that has dogged eastern Ukraine.
“Blankets and night vision goggles are important, but one cannot win a war with a blanket,” Poroshenko said before heading to the White House for his meeting with Obama.
The White House did announce a new $46 million security package for Ukraine’s military that includes counter-mortar radar to detect incoming artillery fire. The U.S. will also provide vehicles and patrol boats, body armour and heavy engineering equipment, while also giving $7 million to humanitarian organizations to assist people affected by the violence.
Following his meeting with Obama, Poroshenko was more reserved in discussing his desire for lethal American military assistance. Asked by reporters whether he was disappointed to be leaving Washington without that commitment, Poroshenko said, “I am satisfied with the level of our co-operation with the United States of America in the defence and security sector. I cannot say more, but I am satisfied.”
Beyond the specific aid announcements, Poroshenko’s visit to Washington—his first since being elected in May—was aimed at signalling to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the U.S. stands steadfastly with Ukraine and its desire to boost ties with the West.
“The people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine,” Obama declared as he sat side-by-side with Poroshenko in the Oval Office. Endorsing Poroshenko’s leadership, Obama said the Ukrainian president was “the right man” to lead his country through a difficult time.
Ukraine’s turn toward Europe and the U.S. has helped bring about Russia’s threatening moves, including the annexation of the strategically important Crimean Peninsula and the support for separatists in eastern cities near Russia’s border. In recent weeks, U.S. officials have accused Moscow of not just aiding the separatists but also sending Russian troops into Ukraine.
Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists agreed to a cease-fire on Sept. 5, but the deal has been violated repeatedly. Both sides have promised to regroup and continue fighting, if required.
Poroshenko came to Washington seeking lethal military assistance to help push back the Russian forces. His request has support from some members of the Obama administration, as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously Thursday to advance legislation that would authorize $350 million for military assistance including anti-tank weapons.
“President Putin has upended the international order, and a slap on the wrist will not deter future Russian provocations,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat who chairs the committee. “In the face of Russian aggression, Ukraine needs our steadfast and determined support, not an ambiguous response. “
In resisting calls to arm Ukraine’s military, Obama has argued that pouring more weapons into the conflict would not de-escalate the situation.
However, Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said Americans arms would “give Putin pause” because of the potential for greater costs for the Russian army.
“The more costly the Ukrainians can make any fighting for the Russians, the less Moscow’s interest in resuming the conflict,” said Pifer, who is now an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank .
Obama’s preferred tactic for imposing costs on Russia has included multiple rounds of economic sanctions targeting Russia’s energy, defence and financial sectors, as well as penalties on government officials and other individuals close to Putin. The European Union, which has a deeper economic relationship with Russia than the U.S., has also joined Washington in ordering sanctions.
While the sanctions have had a negative impact on Russia’s economy, they have so far failed to shift Putin’s tactics.
Poroshenko, a billionaire businessman, won Ukraine’s presidential election earlier this year after his country’s Russian-backed leader fled amid popular protests. Western leaders have praised Poroshenko’s commitment to reform but are pressing him to take more robust action to improve economic stability and attract investment.
A group of U.S. officials, including Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, will travel to the capital of Kyiv next week for discussions on economic reforms.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.