WASHINGTON (AP) -- Both Democratic and Republican U.S. senators asked Tuesday why the Obama administration hasn't decided whether to send defensive weapons to Ukraine and what's the holdup in getting promised assistance to the country in the face of Russian violations of the cease-fire.
Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that administration officials are still discussing lethal assistance and are watching whether the so-called Minsk agreements, which led to last month's cease-fire, are implemented.
At the same time, she said that in the past few days, there have been new transfers of Russian tanks, armored vehicles, heavy artillery and rocket equipment over the border to the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denies arming rebels in the war in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 6,000 people and forced over a million to flee their homes. The fighting began in April, a month after Russia annexed the mostly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula. U.S. lawmakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties have repeatedly urged Obama to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons to defend themselves against the Russian-backed rebels.
"In eastern Ukraine, Russia and its separatist puppets have unleashed unspeakable violence and pillage. This is a manufactured conflict controlled by the Kremlin, fueled by Russian tanks and heavy weapons and financed at Russian taxpayers' expense. It's cost the lives more than 6,000 Ukrainians, and hundreds of young Russians have also lost their lives in eastern Ukraine, sent there to fight and die by the Kremlin," she said.
"And when they come home in zinc coffins, 'cargo 200,' which is the Russian euphemism for war dead, their mothers and their wives and their children are told not to ask too many questions or raise a fuss if they ever want to see death benefits."
She underscored work that Ukraine is doing with U.S. and international support to reform the country, to tackle corruption and strengthen democratic institutions. But she reiterated that the U.S. stands ready to impose further costs on Russia if it continues its aggression in Ukraine.
Republican Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker lamented that the decision on whether to provide lethal weapons to Ukrainian forces "sits on the president's desk undecided." He wondered if the indecision had affected U.S. credibility abroad.
Top Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez wondered aloud about the hold-up, and kept repeating "I don't get it."
Brian McKeon, undersecretary of defense for policy, acknowledged that the pace of getting some $118 million worth of non-lethal assistance to Ukraine has been slow. He said in some cases, the equipment must be located in U.S. military stockpiles, or purchased off the production line. "We are able to move quickly in some instances, and other instances, it is unacceptably slow," McKeon said.