U.S. mixes messaging on Ukraine

04:09 - Source: CNN AP
Ukraine: We need separatists to deliver on ceasefire
CNN —  

The Obama administration is walking a fine line when it comes to its complicated relationship with the Russia government, alternately issuing condemnation, warnings and diplomatic “off ramps.”

More than a week since a ceasefire went into effect between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels, U.S. officials are reiterating their commitment to the diplomatic agreement all the while accusing Russia of violating it.

READ: Crisis diplomacy on display

At a congressional hearing on Wednesday afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. is monitoring the situation on the ground, and has a so-called “Plan B” to deploy if violations continue.

“Plan B is really tougher sanctions and additional support to Ukraine,” including military aid, said Kerry.

“But there’s not yet clarity to the breach,” he said, and the U.S. is working with European partners to see if the deal can still be salvaged. That hedging comes amid increasingly fiery rhetoric about the Russia government from Kerry and other administration officials in recent days.

At Senate hearing Tuesday, Kerry said the Russian government tells “lies,” and that they have “engaged in a rather remarkable period of the most overt and extensive propaganda exercise that I’ve seen since the very height of cold war.”

And later Tuesday evening, White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice actually laughed out loud in response to a question from PBS’s Charlie Rose on whether she accepts Russian President Vladimir Putin at his word when he says he doesn’t want war with Ukraine.

“How dumb do I look?” said Rice, visibly amused. “In all seriousness, no. One cannot accept Vladimir Putin at his word because his actions have belied his words repeatedly, particularly in the context of Ukraine.”

These remarks show how frustrated the administration has become with Russia, but so far, the words have not been followed up by additional sanction or aid.

And while Kerry says the President is considering sending weapons to the Ukrainian military, he is also cautioning that weapons won’t tip the scales in Ukraine’s favor if Russia remains committed to backing separatist rebels.

“I think everybody understands that we’re not going to be able to do enough under any circumstances that if Russia decides to match it and surpass it they’re going to be able to do that,” Kerry said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday morning. “Everybody knows that including [Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko].”

Therefore, Kerry concludes, any lethal military assistance the U.S. must come in the form of defensive weaponry.

“The debate is whether or not there is some weapons that could be given them to give them greater ability to defend themselves in order to prevent the creeping land grabbing that’s been taking place, or at least raise the cost,” he said. “That’s a very legitimate discussion.”

And it’s a discussion that’s ongoing, said Kerry. President Barack Obama has not made a decision to provide any weapons as of Wednesday.

In a separate hearing, Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of Supreme Allied Command, Europe, echoed Kerry’s concerns about the size of Russia’s influence.

“To the degree that we can supply help, I’m not sure that they could stop a Russian advance in Ukraine, even if we supply aid,” he said.

The key variable is whether Putin considers eastern Ukraine to be a strategic priority, and how far he’s willing to go to support the pro-Russian movement when doing so further alienates the U.S. and Europe.

“We have to be cognizant that if we arm the Ukrainians it could cause positive results, it could cause negative results,” Breedlove said. “But what we’re doing now is not changing the results on the ground.”