WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s pick to become defense secretary told Congress on Wednesday he was leaning in favor of providing arms to Ukraine but later cautioned that the focus must remain on pressuring Russia economically and politically.
Ashton Carter, a former Pentagon No. 2, told the Senate Armed Services Committee he would “very much incline” toward supplying defensive arms to Ukraine, adding the United States needed to support the country’s efforts to defend itself against Russian-backed separatists.
U.S. officials are taking a fresh look at providing weapons, which advocates say could help end the conflict in Ukraine but opponents warn might escalate the war.
“The nature of those arms, I can’t say right now,” Carter said at his Senate confirmation hearing. “But I incline in the direction of providing them with arms, including, to get to what I’m sure your question is, lethal arms.”
After a break in the hearing, Carter was pressed about the risks of escalation. He said: “I think the economic and political pressure on Russia has to remain the main center of gravity of our effort in pushing back.”
Washington is keen to maintain solidarity on Russia with Europe, some of whose leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, strongly oppose arming Ukraine.
The United States has provided some non-lethal military equipment to Ukraine but has not sent arms, saying it does not want to be drawn into a proxy war with the Russians.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, in a comment to reporters during the hearing break, stressed the decision would ultimately fall to Obama as commander in chief, but added the president would listen to his advisors.
Carter, 60, would succeed Chuck Hagel, who resigned under pressure last year after struggling to break into Obama’s tight-knit inner circle of security aides.
The Senate is expected to swiftly confirm Carter, a veteran defense policy insider who is broadly supported by both Republicans and Democrats.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, an outspoken Obama critic, questioned how much influence Carter will have.
“I sincerely hope the president who nominated you will empower you to lead and contribute to the fullest extent of your abilities,” McCain said. “Because at a time of multiplying threats to our security, America needs a strong secretary of defense now more than ever.”
Carter vowed to cut through any “red tape” slowing U.S. arms deliveries to Jordan, which plans to step up its fight against Islamic State after the killing of a captured Jordanian pilot.
All 26 members of the Senate committee signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Hagel asking that the United States quickly send Jordan aircraft parts, precision munitions and other equipment.
On Afghanistan, Carter said he supported Obama’s plans for drawing down forces there but added that he would be willing to review future U.S. troop withdrawals if needed.
Carter was deputy defense secretary from 2011 to 2013 and was the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer from 2009 to 2011 when he led a major restructuring of the F-35 fighter jet program.
Carter said he favored increased military spending, including continued funding for a new long-range bomber, and would fight to end congressional budget caps. But he vowed to accelerate reforms aimed at ending wasteful cost overruns.
His comments were good news for Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N), Boeing Co (BA.N) and other big weapons makers, which have been waiting to hear from Carter on his priorities and his commitment to new procurement programs.
Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by David Storey and James Dalgleish