Ukrainian leaders, after months of pleading for the United States and other NATO countries to supply their military with the defensive weapons they say they need to protect their country, appear to have turned in a different direction. On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that his government is in talks with the United Arab Emirates over the purchase of modernized weapons.
Poroshenko’s under-equipped army has been battling well-armed insurgents in the eastern part of Ukraine. The rebels, backed by Russia, are equipped with advanced weapons the government in Kiev does not have.
Over the weekend, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk pleaded for U.S. arms in an interview with Fox News. “We have to defend ourselves,” Yatsenyuk said. “Russia is constantly supplying tanks, surface-to-air missiles and the rest of the stuff. And again everyone knows this, and we still use outdated Soviet-style equipment.”
On Tuesday, Poroshenko demonstrated that the government in Kiev is willing to look beyond the U.S. and NATO. According to multiple media reports, he told reporters at the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi that Ukraine and the UAE had agreed on a deal for unspecified “defensive” weaponry. He said that Ukraine remains in talks with the U.S., as well.
“I want to stress that the defensive capabilities for the Ukrainian Army are only to defend our territory, to keep our independence, to keep our sovereignty,” he added. “We do not have any plans to attack anybody.”
The question of whether or not the U.S. should arm Ukraine is a fraught one in Washington. The Obama administration has been verbally supportive of the Ukrainian government, and has supplied a small amount of non-lethal aid. However, the likelihood that the transfer of advanced U.S. military equipment to the Kiev government would turn the conflict into a full-blown proxy war between the U.S. and Russia appears to be a sticking point for the Obama White House.
This has not sat well with many in Congress, including vocal and influential Republicans. Over the weekend, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared himself “ashamed” of the U.S. for its failure to better support Ukraine.
A ceasefire between Ukranian troops and Russia-backed rebels was supposed to have stopped fighting between the two sides more than a week ago, but rebel forces pressed their offensive against the town of Debaltseve for several days past the deadline with little pushback from European leaders. After the fall of Debaltseve, reports of continued attacks in the area of the vital port city of Mariupol continued.
On Tuesday, Reuters correspondents in eastern Ukraine reported seeing heavy weapons in rebel hands being transported away from the front lines, which was a condition of the original ceasefire.
Ukrainian officials, though, claim that attacks are still taking place, and said that they would not agree to pull back their weapons until the attacks had stopped for two full days.
Russia has consistently denied supplying troops or equipment to the Ukrainian rebels. Substantial evidence to the contrary has led to general agreement among Western governments that the rebels are essentially the Kremlin’s proxies.
If a shooting war didn’t create enough tension between the Ukrainian and Russian governments, Kiev also remains dependent on Russia for much of the natural gas its citizens use to heat their homes and for other purposes. On Tuesday, Russian officials said that Ukraine was two days away from having gas supplies shut off because the government has not pre-paid for delivery.
Ukraine claims that it has already paid for all the gas it requires through the winter. The controversy is driven, in part, by the fact that Russia is charging the government in Kiev for the gas it is supplying to separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
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