SHAFAQNA – Ukranian military vehicles are seen driving on the road towards the town of Artemivsk. Fighting between government and Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine has intensified in recent days as rebels seek to encircle the town of Debaltseve, which hosts a strategically important railyway hub. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
The Obama administration reportedly is reconsidering whether to provide defensive weapons and equipment to Ukrainian forces after Russian-backed separatist rebels dealt them a series of reversals in recent weeks.
The New York Times reports that President Obama has not made a decision on whether to provide more military aid. However, the paper reports that such a move is backed by departing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove.
The White House has previously limited aid to Ukrainian forces to so-called “non-lethal” items, such as body armor, first aid kits and other equipment. But the Times reports that the rebels’ progress across eastern Ukraine has forced Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey to revisit the matter.
According to The Times, an independent report due to be released Monday will call for the U.S. to send $3 billion in defensive arms and armor to Ukraine. Among the items specified in the report are anti-armor missiles, reconnaissance drones, and armored Humvees.
The release of the report comes after the latest settlement negotiations between the two sides collapsed over the weekend in Minsk, Belarus.
Ukraine’s envoy at the talks, former President Leonid Kuchma, told Interfax-Ukraine news agency that rebel representatives threatened to renew full-scale hostilities along the entire line of contact between the opposing forces. Kuchma said separatists also demanded to redraw a division line agreed by government and rebel forces in September.
In statements following the talks, rebel officials did not address any specific demands, but accused Ukraine of acting in bad faith and pursuing offensive maneuvers against their forces and civilians under their jurisdiction. In Donetsk, the main rebel-held city, three civilians were killed and four wounded in shelling, the city administration said.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s army reported 28 killed over the weekend in some of the deadliest fighting since a nominal cease-fire was signed in September. Much of the violence was centered on the government-held town of Debaltseve, a vital railway hub that connects Donetsk and Luhansk, both capitals of provinces that the rebels have declared independent.
The Wall Street Journal, citing Ukrainian military officials, reported that a shell hit the Debaltseve city hall, where Ukrainian officers had until recently worked alongside their Russian counterparts as cease-fire monitors. The Russian delegation had declined to show up in recent days, citing security concerns.
A new offensive launched by the rebels last month has attempted to retake industrial areas captured by government troops over the summer. The rebels said they had taken control of the shattered Donetsk airport last week, in a key symbolic loss for Kiev’s forces. All told, NATO officials estimate that the rebels have captured nearly 200 square miles of additional territory since the start of October.
Russia denies sending arms and troops to the rebels, who claim to rely solely on military equipment poached from the Ukrainian army. But the separatist forces have deployed vast quantities of powerful weapons, much of which military experts say are not even in Ukraine’s arsenal.
Western officials tell The Times that Russia has supplied the weapons with heavy tanks and rocket launch systems in recent weeks. NATO officials also estimate that approximately 1,000 Russian military and intelligence officials are supporting the rebel offensive, though the Ukrainians say that number is much higher.
The U.N. estimates that the conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed 5,100 civilians and displaced more than 900,000 people since it began in April.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.