A diplomatic divide between the United States and Germany over the extent of Russian military involvement in Ukraine and how to respond to it threatens to hinder hopes of providing greater support to the beleaguered nation.
The dispute comes as the United States agreed this week to provide $75 million in nonlethal aid to Ukraine, including 30 armored Humvees and up to 200 unarmored ones. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the $75 million a “substantial supplement” to the assistance the United States already has provided, including some $120 million that’s gone to the Ukrainian military, but he stopped short of saying lethal aid might be considered.
Whether to provide additional military assistance to the Ukrainian military remains an open question. The U.S. administration is concerned that it could never provide enough military support for Ukraine to defeat Russia and that doing so would only encourage pro-Russia fighters in eastern Ukraine to violate a tenuous cease-fire.
Still, in recent weeks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has appeared frustrated with proposals emanating from Congress and parts of the Obama administration to send weapons to Ukraine, saying that could scuttle the chance of finding a diplomatic solution and escalate the crisis.
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German officials, including some in Merkel’s office, have recently referred to U.S. statements of Russian involvement in the Ukraine fighting as “dangerous propaganda,” and the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel went so far as to ask: “Do the Americans want to sabotage the European mediation attempts in Ukraine led by Chancellor Merkel?”
That was a reference to Merkel’s and French President Francois Hollande’s meetings last month in Minsk, Belarus, with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin to hash out a cease-fire. While the separatists completed their takeover of the Ukrainian city of Debaltseve after the cease-fire went into effect, it’s generally considered to be holding.
All sides agree that Russia is supporting the separatists, something a NATO official stressed in responding to German frustrations, saying that there’s “broad agreement on the overall situation.”
But Germans and other Europeans are concerned that U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove – the NATO supreme allied commander, Europe – and Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, have been exaggerating the extent of Russian involvement in the conflict.
Of particular concern are Breedlove’s figures on the numbers of troops and tanks Russia reportedly has transferred to Ukraine. The numbers Breedlove offers are routinely higher than those of other intelligence agencies, and Europeans fear he’s playing to an American audience, which they think doesn’t advance peace efforts.
Der Spiegel reported that the first example came early in the conflict, when Breedlove announced that Russia had massed 40,000 troops at the Ukrainian border, and he called the situation “incredibly alarming.” Other NATO nations detected far fewer troops – some said fewer than 20,000 – and ruled out an invasion, saying the “composition and equipment” of the forces were “not appropriate for an invasion or attack,” according to Der Spiegel.
Numerous German news reports also have noted a vast difference between the number of Russian troops that European NATO members have estimated are in Ukraine’s conflicted Donbas region and what American NATO commanders have announced. It’s 600, according to the Europeans, versus the 12,000 to 20,000 estimated by U.S. commanders.
Last month, Ukrainian military officials said the Russians had moved 50 tanks and dozens of rocket launchers across the border near Luhansk, and a U.S. general said Russian troops had directly interfered in the battles. But German intelligence could verify only that a few armored vehicles had been moved.
According to German media reports, a top-level German government official worried that “partly incorrect claims or exaggerated claims could gamble away trust for the entire West.”
A NATO military officer who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation said the dispute between the U.S. and Europeans over the size of the Russian involvement was beside the point.
“Precise numbers don’t change the overall fact that there is no doubt that Russian troops actively support separatists in eastern Ukraine,” he wrote in an email response to questions. He added that the Russian involvement “has had a significant impact on how the crisis has unfolded to date, including prolonging and intensifying the violence.”
“Russia has been very deliberate in its efforts to mask its presence and to confuse the international community about its involvement in Eastern Ukraine,” he wrote. “Forces have been repeatedly withdrawn and redeployed in the border region. Russian troops are often masked, and insignia have been removed from uniforms and equipment. But the reality is clear to see and cannot be denied.”
Bobo Lo, a Russia expert at London’s Chatham House research center, said the dispute wasn’t so much over numbers but about how the Ukraine situation would be best resolved. Some U.S. officials think that without a military threat, peace negotiations don’t stand a chance, while European officials fear a military threat will simply escalate the situation.
Lo noted that while there are American voices clamoring for a deeper U.S. commitment to Ukraine, President Barack Obama has consistently taken the view that “Ukraine is a European nation, so this is a European problem.”
“Putin has calculated ... that Europe doesn’t have the stomach for a fight ... and that the United States doesn’t really care about Ukraine,” Lo said. “It’s hard to say that he’s got it wrong.”
Meanwhile, Merkel and Hollande are willing to extend themselves more than other European leaders on the issue, but neither wants or could expect support for getting aggressive with Russia.
“Very few Europeans think Ukraine is a priority,” Lo said. “They just want the issue to go away.”
In Ukraine, there’s no dispute about the level of Russian involvement. Ukrainian military experts and officials say Russian fighters make up at least 60 percent of the separatist fighters and that Russia provides or pays for essentially all the weapons and ammunition.
Ukrainians say they can’t determine the percentage of regular military versus Russian-state-hired mercenaries, as they don’t have access to the contracts Russia makes. But the officials say there’s overwhelming evidence, from captured soldiers and weapons to Russian media reports, that a significant percentage of Russian fighters are regular military.
Putin and separatist leaders in the past have acknowledged this, trying to pass off the phenomenon as Russian soldiers using their vacations to fight for Donbas, but there’s widespread conviction that even if such behavior were allowed, those soldiers wouldn’t be permitted to take their tanks and artillery guns on vacation.