US rethinks giving arms to Ukraine

A soldier stands guard as people wait to leave the besieged Ukrainian town of Debaltseve. Picture: AP
A soldier stands guard as people wait to leave the besieged Ukrainian town of Debaltseve. Picture: AP
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The United States is reconsidering supplying arms to Ukraine in an attempt to bolster the country’s flagging armed forces in their war with Moscow-backed rebels.

Washington has so far supplied only non-lethal military aid but US officials have now said they are considering a “fresh look” ahead of a visit by secretary of state John Kerry to Kiev later this week.

Heavy fighting continued yesterday in eastern Ukraine as rebels pressed on with an offensive that has put the Ukrainian armed forces on the back foot and led, according to Kiev’s defence ministry, to the death of another five soldiers. The battered state of Ukraine’s army in comparison to the resurgent rebel forces, which many claim are backed and armed by Moscow, appears to have made the US re-evaluate its policy on supplying weapons.

“It’s getting a fresh look,” a senior official in the US government was quoted as saying. “Where things will end up, we don’t know.

“What’s being discussed is perhaps we should begin providing defensive weapons, defensive equipment, to Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian government has asked for military aid in the past but so far western countries have refused to provide arms fearing it would escalate the crisis and worsen relations with Russia that have already sunk to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War in 1989.

German chancellor Angela Merkel remained faithful to western policy saying yesterday her country would not supply arms.

She added: “We are focusing on a diplomatic solution and the foreign ministers have made clear that if the situation gets even worse then it will be necessary to work on further ­sanctions.”

America’s political deliberations on whether to arm Ukraine came as the United ­Nations warned of the dangers of any “further escalation” of a war that has already claimed around 5,350 lives.

“Any further escalation will prove catastrophic for the 5.2 million people living in the midst of conflict in eastern Ukraine,” said Zeid Ra’ad al-­Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights.

“Bus stops and public transport, marketplaces, schools and kindergartens, hospitals and ­residential areas have become battlegrounds in clear breach of international humanitarian law.”

Mr Hussein said in the past three weeks at least 224 ­civilians have been killed and 545 wounded as the fighting begins to exact a higher toll on people caught in the middle.

“The situation is getting worse by the day,” said Michel Masson, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine.

“People are hiding in basements for days on end and those who dare to venture out to collect basic aid risk being wounded or killed.”

An estimated 1.2 million people have fled their homes since the start of the fighting in April.

Fears of the war growing and spreading have also have been increased by rebels announcing plans to create a 100,000-strong army through the introduction of conscription.

In a verbal attack on Kiev, ­Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, also claimed Ukraine’s pro-western leaders were “miserable representatives of the great Jewish people”.

“I can’t remember a time when Cossacks were led by people who have never held a sword in their hands,” Mr Zakharchenko said yesterday, in a reference to Ukraine’s nationalist forebears, the Cossacks.