War Drums

02.05.15 3:12 AM ET

Obama’s Pentagon Pick Is Already At Odds With The White House

One minute, the incoming Defense Secretary floats the idea of arming Ukraine to stop Putin. The next, that idea is being shot down from the White House podium.

Ash Carter hasn’t been confirmed yet as President’s Defense Secretary nominee. But he’s already in a tangle with the Obama administration, over what to do about the war in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Ash Carter, the man Obama picked to run the Pentagon, appeared to push the administration to escalate its involvement in Ukraine conflict when he told the Senate he was “very much inclined” to recommend the United States provide lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military.

Carter’s comments during his confirmation hearing came as a growing chorus of policymakers, analysts ,and diplomats have called for the United States to do more to stop the Russian military and Kremlin-backed separatists from further picking Ukraine apart. Carter told the Senate Armed Services committee the U.S. should provide “lethal arms,” which could include anything from ammunition to anti-tank missiles.

"We need to support Ukraine in defending themselves," Carter told the Senate committee.

The administration immediately pushed back. The State Department said its policy had not changed. And White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday: “A decision like this will be made by the commander in chief.”

Even Carter himself tried to walk back his position after returning from a long break during the daylong hearing. 

“Much as I’m inclined in the direction that I indicated this morning, the economic and political pressure on Russia has to remain the main point of pressure,” he said.

But for many at the Pentagon, Carter’s comments were a public acknowledgement of what they already know. As one Pentagon official explained to The Daily Beast: “We all know this is leaning toward lethal aid.”

The administration currently it is conducting a review about providing lethal aid it calls “defensive weapons” to a struggling Ukrainian Army confronting separatists increasingly armed and backed by the Russians. As of now, the U.S. has provided some non-lethal military equipment.

After news of that review emerged last month, critics followed, many calling for the United States to do more on behalf of the government in Kiev. 

In the last week, for example, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder urged the United States to do more for the Ukrainian allies. Daadler, for example, argued that a better-armed military will make intervention in eastern Ukraine too costly for Russia’s already fragile economy. And because Russia has not backed down even in the face of crippling sanctions, the United States has no other choice but to supply the weapons.

“Mr. Putin will settle only when the costs of continuing the war are too high. Supplying arms to Ukraine will raise the costs to Russia, increasing the likelihood that a real settlement can be negotiated. The time for doing so is now,” Daadler wrote in the Financial Times last week.

Earlier this week, several strategists and former administration officials urged the administration to do more in a think tank paper, raising public pressure on the administration.

Perhaps the loudest proponent of U.S. intervention is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that Carter was appearing before.  Because of that it was unclear how steadfast Carter’s position was.

“My guess is he is saying what he needs to do to satisfy John McCain,” said Sean Kay, a professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Ohio Wesleyan University, who wrote about the risks of potential U.S. intervention on behalf of the Ukrainian military.

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Either way, it could be difficult for the administration to undercut the presumptive Defense chief, even as polls suggest Americans do not want the United States to further engage in the Ukrainian-Russia conflict, which could be seen as a proxy war.

If the administration does not arm the Ukrainian military, “then it becomes a political issue,” Kay warned.

Opponents argue that increasing U.S. intervention in the Ukrainian crisis, even with “defensive weapons” could escalate the violence and prolong the conflict.  

“Is it a moral thing to tell Ukraine we will be there for them if we will not? My answer is no,” Kay said.

Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to arrive in Kiev Thursday.