Sen. Bill Nelson, gearing up for a trip this week that will take him to Ukraine, the Baltic states and Turkey, departed from the Obama administration’s more measured approach and called for providing lethal arms to Ukraine’s military, which is battling Russian-backed rebels and facing down 20,000 Russian troops amassed along the border.
However, Nelson did not go as far as Ukraine’s senior national representative to the international coalition at U.S. Central Command would like. Nelson says Russia’s takeover of Crimea essentially is a done deal.
He also called for providing weapons to Kurdish forces fighting Sunni insurgents in Iraq, something the CIA only recently began doing, according to The Associated Press.
“The place I differ with the president is that he thus far has not been wiling to give arms to ... the government of Ukraine in order to help them protect themselves from the big Russian bear,” said Nelson in a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon.
Nelson said the U.S. “doesn’t have any choice” but to provide arms to the peshmerga, Kurdish forces battling Islamic State forces.
“We have got to make sure Kurdistan does not fall to this radical Islamic group,” he said. ”If you allow that group to set up a radical caliphate, then that is a threat to every peace-loving person on the planet. I support whatever arms are necessary. ... We ought to be giving arms to the Kurds to help them protect themselves.”
President Barack Obama has resisted providing lethal aid to Ukraine, and the U.S., through the CIA, has only recently been directly providing small arms and shoulder-fired weapons to the Kurds, according to NBC. The administration has provided food and medical supplies to Ukraine and has issued economic sanctions against Russia and its top leaders.
Last week, Centcom, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, ordered a two-pronged campaign against the Islamic State. U.S. piloted aircraft and drones have been hitting their convoys and weapons — largely U.S.-made systems captured from the Iraqi military — aimed at Kurdish areas where U.S. personnel are present. U.S. aircraft have been dropping tons of food, water and other supplies on the Sinjar Mountains where members of the minority Yazidi sect have been holed up and starving as a result of attacks by Islamic State, which aims to establish a caliphate across a wide swath of the Middle East and Africa.
Nelson said he is not in favor of sending combat troops to fight the Islamic State but that it is still to be determined whether airstrikes alone will stop the group.
He also advocated hitting the Islamic State in Syria.
“My advice to the president, and I have already talked to top officials in the Department of Defense, is that we have to even go further and start hitting (the Islamic State) in Syria. We’ve got to knock these guys back.”
Ukrainian Col. Vitalii Nazola, the senior national representative to the Centcom coalition at MacDill, said that his government not only wants Crimea back but also wants the two main rebel groups, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, declared terrorist organizations.
Nazola also said Ukraine wants to join NATO as an ally state and that “direct lethal aid is mostly needed (especially high-precision weapons), fixed- and rotary-wing aviation, antitank systems (and) air-defense systems.”
Beyond weapons, Nazola said, Ukraine would like increased intelligence sharing, body armor, night vision gear and increased humanitarian assistance.
“Thousands of wounded military personnel and civilians need urgent support,” Nazola wrote in an email to the Tribune. And he called for further escalation of economic sanctions against Russia.
Providing arms to the Kiev government presents a “delicate balance for the president” between helping Ukraine protect itself and provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin “to come across the line.”
Nelson said that tensions should be waning now that it appears Ukraine’s military has surrounded rebels in the city of Donetsk, where about one-third of the 1.5 million residents have fled, and appear to be winning in the city of Luhansk as well, where several hundred thousand of the half million residents have fled.
“The rest of the people have no electricity, no water, medical supplies,” he said, adding that, as of Monday, Ukraine’s government had worked out a deal with the International Red Cross and the Russians to get food, water and medical supplies into those cities.
Nelson said he did not want the Russians alone providing humanitarian aid.
“That’s like the camel getting his nose under the tent,” Nelson said. ”Suddenly, the camel is in the tent.”
Victory by Ukraine’s military should calm the region, Nelson said, but if Putin orders his troops into Ukraine, “then we are in full-scale war.”
Nelson said Crimea, home to a former Soviet and current Russian naval base, is a “different situation” than Donetsk and Luhansk and that he expects it to remain in Russian hands. He “does not know the answer” to the question of whether the rebel groups should be deemed terrorist organizations. He also said that additional sanctions against Russia may be in order.
Nelson, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he will leave this week for Ukraine via a commercial flight and will be accompanied by a Navy officer who will provide security.
He said he is acting on encouragement from Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, supreme allied commander in Europe as well as commander of U.S. European Command, which oversees U.S. military efforts in Europe.
In addition to visiting Ukraine, his first visit there, he will visit Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Turkey.
Nelson said his wife raised concerns about his safety, but “I have been in more dangerous places.”
Nazola, Ukraine’s representative to Centcom, said he hopes Nelson can persuade the U.S. to act quickly.
“There is no time to wait and hesitate,” Nazola said when asked what he hopes Nelson takes away from his trip. “Any delays could only aggravate the situation.”