When we reported yesterday about Putin's surprisingly harsh response to last week's House legislation to launch new sanctions against Russia, which also binds Trump from unilaterally removing sanctions without getting Congressional approval, we concluded that "now we await the US re-retaliation in what is once again the same tit-for-tat escalation that marked the latter years of the Obama regime, as the US Military Industrial Complex breathes out a sigh of relief that for all the posturing by Trump, things between Russia and the US are back on autopilot." We didn't have long to wait.
The WSJ reports that, in what appears to be the next gambit by the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex (or "deep state" for those so inclined) to force Trump to "prove" that he did not, in fact, collude or have any ties with Russia or Vladimir Putin, Pentagon and State Department officials have devised plans to hit Russia where it hurts the most, and supply Ukraine with antitank missiles and other weaponry, and are now seeking White House approval at a time when ties between Moscow and Washington are as bad as during any point under the Obama administration.
American military officials and diplomats say the arms, which they characterized as defensive, are meant to deter aggressive actions by Moscow, which the U.S. and others say has provided tanks and other sophisticated armaments as well as military advisers to rebels fighting the Kiev government. Why now?
Since the start of the Crimean conflict, which in turn was the byproduct of a State Department-facilitiated presidential coup in Ukraine, the US has been supporting Russian-speaking insurgents in the country’s east however Washington, wary of escalating the conflict, has largely limited its support for Kiev’s military to so-called non-lethal aid and training.
So one attempt at "why now", is because with Trump reeling, and having already caved on the latest Congressional anti-Russia bill, why not push the president to escalate the Russia conflict to a point where not even his predecessor dared to take it. For now, Trump is unaware of the plan:
A senior administration official said there has been no decision on the armaments proposal and it wasn’t discussed at a high-level White House meeting on Russia last week. The official said President Donald Trump hasn’t been briefed on the plan and his position isn’t known.
Of course, that will change once the president, now with a veteran general by his side as new Chief of Staff reads the WSJ report, and starts debating whether it is worth to further deteriorate Russian relations if it means getting Mueller of his back, by showing just how committed Trump is to "containing Russian aggression."
Meanwhile, setting the stage for the escalation, a Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Baldanza, said the U.S. has not “ruled out the option” of providing “lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine.” U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has endorsed the plan, according to U.S. officials quoted by the WSJ.
Going back three years, when the Obama administration considered supplying arms to Ukraine - and ultimately refused to do so - it faced considerable opposition from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other allied leaders and instead provided Kiev with short-range radar, night-vision goggles and other equipment.
So, ironically, just as Trump's imminent signing into law of the Congressional sanctions against Russia, which as we explained before, have already infuriated Europe, so any further escalation in Ukraine will likely add to Europe's animosity toward the US.
Germany and France remain deeply skeptical about providing arms to Ukraine, fearing that such moves would raise tensions and deepen the conflict there. But U.S. officials said they expect allies, possibly including the U.K., Canada, Poland and Lithuania to be open to increased military support.
“It is really important we don’t inflame the situation,” said British National Security Adviser Mark Sedwell. “There has been quite a lot of agitation from across the border in the east.”
Alas it may be too late for that. Enter, the US warhawks, who now feel that after being shut out for nearly a year, it's their turn to shine.
As the WSJ notes, U.S. officials say they "worry" that the conflict has intensified, with a rising number of cease-fire violations as progress on peace efforts has faltered. “The level of violence is up a bit of late,” said Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the top U.S. and NATO military commander. “The Russians provide equipment, some of their most modern equipment, and they provide proxy forces with advisers.”
Meanwhile, NATO continues to deploy even more troops to countries in the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, something which Russia has warned it takes as an act of aggression. Over weapons deliveries to Ukraine rebels may be just the spark that finally launches an armed conflict between Russia and NATO.
Under the Pentagon and State Department proposal, the U.S. would provide anti-tank weapons, most likely Javelin missiles, as well as possibly anti-aircraft weapons, in addition to other arms. Ukraine has long sought Javelins to counter Russian-made armored vehicles in rebel-held areas.
U.S. officials, however, said the plan would be to deploy the anti-tank missiles with Ukrainian troops stationed away from the front lines of the conflict,part of an effort by policy makers to limit the risks of escalation and defuse criticism that the moves could encourage offensive action by Kiev.
Javelin missiles and launchers are lightweight and usually carried by two-man teams, so they are highly mobile.
And the best bit: just like in Syria, the Pentago has said that "should Ukraine use the weapons improperly, Washington could decide to withdraw its support or technical assistance."
It was not immediately clear what 'improper use of weapons' would consist of, but probably taking down another Malaysian Airlines airplane over Ukraine would be not be among the actions permitted.
Needless to say, the Ukraine is delighted by this latest development:
A senior Ukrainian official said Monday that the fact of the Pentagon’s proposal could help persuade Russia to scale back actions in Ukraine’s east. The official also said it was widely accepted in Kiev that any advanced weapons from the U.S. would be used only in an “emergency” and not during regular combat with separatist forces.
And another amusing detour: the WSJ writes that "U.S. and European officials are divided on how Moscow would respond to new arms shipments. Some believe it would push Moscow back to the bargaining table and others think it would prompt the Russian military to escalate the situation further."
Spoiler alert: it would be the latter, and most likely with devastating consequences. John McCain, for one, is delighted....