FOR THE sake of the cameras, President Obama assured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at a White House meeting Thursday that “not only do we support Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence in words, but we’ve also been supporting it in deeds.” If only that were true. The reality is that the beleaguered Ukrainian leader left Washington backed by considerable rhetoric from the Obama administration but little with which he can turn back the continuing Russian aggression against his country.
In an emotional address to Congress, Mr. Poroshenko described Ukraine as fighting for Western democratic values as well as its own survival, and he all but begged for U.S. military aid beyond the token “non-lethal” supplies the Obama administration has provided. “One cannot win the war with blankets,” he said. “Even more, we cannot keep the peace with a blanket.”
Mr. Obama’s answer was to offer another batch of blankets: non-lethal equipment amounting to $46 million, a rounding error in the Pentagon’s budget. Instead of the antitank weapons and drones the Ukrainian army desperately needs, it was promised more body armor, engineering equipment and patrol boats. That will be worthless against the thousands of regular Russian troops, backed by tanks, artillery and sophisticated antiaircraft systems, that moved into eastern Ukraine last month.
Administration officials say Mr. Obama holds back weapons for Ukraine because of his oft-stated belief that there is “no military solution” to the conflict with Russia and because he wishes to avoid an escalation. But weak U.S. and European support has allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to impose his own military solution as he has repeatedly escalated his aggression. Thanks to advances by Russian troops, Mr. Poroshenko was forced to accept a cease-fire that locked in Russian control over a large slice of eastern Ukraine.
In the last week, Ukraine’s parliament has approved far-reaching concessions to appease Mr. Putin, including a formal grant of autonomy to the Russian-controlled regions and a one-year delay in the implementation of a free-trade agreement with the European Union. In return, Ukraine is hoping to claw back a few attributes of sovereignty: the withdrawal of Russian troops from its territory, the sealing of the border and the release of Ukrainians taken prisoner by the Russians or their proxies.
It’s unlikely that Mr. Putin will meet those terms. While some Russian troops have pulled back, Ukrainian and NATO officials say 1,000 or more remain. Russian forces still control a significant stretch of the border, and both Moscow and its Ukrainian proxies have rejected Mr. Poroshenko’s concessions as inadequate.
Mr. Poroshenko appears resigned to a “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine. His hope is to prevent renewed Russian aggression; that’s why he wants U.S. aid. “The weapons will help us to prevent the next war,” he said in an appearance at the Atlantic Council. Though Ukraine’s army cannot defeat Russia’s, the prospect of significant losses might deter Mr. Putin from another offensive.
That’s why legislation approved Thursday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee makes sense. It would strengthen sanctions against Russia and provide Ukraine with $350 million in military aid in 2015, including the weapons it needs to counter Russian armor. Mr. Poroshenko called the package “urgently needed” and “the most effective way to suppport Ukraine.” Congress should swiftly approve it.