U.S. eyes military supplies for Ukraine, seeks to avoid escalation

WASHINGTON Thu Mar 20, 2014 7:01pm EDT

A Ukrainian soldier and armored personnel carrier guard a checkpoint near the village of Salkovo, in the Kherson region adjacent to Crimea, March 20, 2014. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

A Ukrainian soldier and armored personnel carrier guard a checkpoint near the village of Salkovo, in the Kherson region adjacent to Crimea, March 20, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Valentyn Ogirenko

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Thursday it was focusing for now on Ukrainian requests for non-lethal support, as opposed to any weaponry, as a senior U.S. official said Washington wanted to avoid further militarizing the standoff with Russia.

Ukraine's government has put its heavily outnumbered and outgunned forces on alert for an invasion from Russia in the east following Moscow's seizure of Crimea.

Kiev has asked for military support from the United States, which U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say includes small arms, as well as non-lethal assistance, such as medical supplies.

So far, the U.S. government has only approved providing military food rations, officials say, as President Barack Obama's government instead focused on financial support for Ukraine and pressuring Russia diplomatically.

"I think it's safe to say that right now, the focus of that review (of Ukraine's military requests) is on the non-lethal side of things," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told a news briefing.

"But it is very much still an active issue under consideration."

Obama's critics, including Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, have lambasted the hesitancy, saying last week the United States should not be "imposing an arms embargo on a victim of aggression."

Still, a senior administration official, defended Obama's approach on Thursday, as Washington unveiled new sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest long-time political and business allies.

"It's our view that the best course here is to lay down strong costs through these sanctions ... We don't want to take steps to add to a momentum of further militarizing the situation," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Kirby did not offer a timeline for the review of Ukrainian requests. He noted the food rations have not been delivered yet.

"There are other non-lethal items which are being considered. I don't want to go into them by detail and give you a shopping list, but, in general, it's on the order of medical supplies and uniform equipment and that kind of thing," he said.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Lesley Wroughton; Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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