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Why Ukraine's plight has yet to set off alarms at the White House (+video)

Ukrainian President Poroshenko's call for more military and economic aid has won strong backers in Congress, including among Democrats, but President Obama has been wary of offering lethal military aid. 

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    President Petro Poroshenko (c.) addresses a joint session of Congress in the US Capitol in Washington on Thursday. Vice President Joe Biden (l.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio listen.
    Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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When President Obama announced his strategy for defeating Islamic State militants in a prime-time address last week, the nation heard a leader pushed across a threshold to intervention by actions – including beheadings of Americans – he said could not go unchecked.

On Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visits Mr. Obama at the White House, in search of more US military assistance to defend against an aggressive Russian neighbor and substantial economic aid to underpin a teetering economy.

"With just one move, the world has been thrown back in time – to a reality of territorial claims, zones of influence, criminal aggression and annexations," he said, in an address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday. "The post-war international system of checks and balances was effectively ruined."

Yet despite harsh administration rhetoric about the dire threat that Russia’s violations of Ukraine’s border and the annexation of Crimea pose for European stability, there is little indication from the White House that events in Ukraine in recent weeks have pushed Obama across a similar threshold to a deeper US commitment – including the provision of lethal military assistance – to Ukraine.

A cease-fire in eastern Ukraine is shaky but holding between government forces and pro-Russian separatists and concerns linger about Ukrainian corruption and the black hole that US and other international aid has fallen into, while administration officials are convinced Western sanctions on Russia are having an impact. That may leave Obama cautious about a leap to a new level of US assistance and involvement that risks deepening Ukraine’s conflict.

“There will be lots of forceful rhetoric about Ukraine’s fight for freedom, about the need to stand up to Russian aggression – and then the devil will be in the details of what Poroshenko is actually offered,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a US-Russia expert and national security professor at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “I wouldn’t expect him to get everything he’s looking for.”

For one thing, nothing has happened in the run-up to Poroshenko’s visit – nothing like the shocking actions by the Islamic State just before Obama’s speech – to push the president to a new level of assistance and commitment to Ukraine, Dr. Gvosdev says.

“If you had a similar threshold, it was the downing of the Malyasian airliner,” he adds, “but while that did change the conversation about Ukraine, it didn’t have the same impact on opinions [in the US] and it didn’t put the same kind of pressure for action on Obama.”

If anything, Gvosdev says, the cease-fire – as jittery and violated as it is – could offer Obama an “out” to say, “’Let’s not stir things up right now.’”

Given not just the cease-fire, which included significant concessions by Kiev to the rebels, but also the Ukrainian parliament’s approval this week of special-status legislation granting new powers to the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, Obama may return to his earlier position that Russia has an “off-ramp” for de-escalating the conflict, some analysts say.

But no such calming words are anticipated in Congress, where an increasingly bipartisan bloc of members is pushing for beefed up support – including lethal military aid – for Ukraine. 

“In the face of Russian aggression, Ukraine needs our steadfast and determined support, not an ambiguous response,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the Foreign Relations in Committee, in introducing legislation Wednesday his committee will vote on shortly after Poroshenko’s joint-session speech Thursday morning. “We are left with no choice but to apply tough sanctions against Russia, coupled with military assistance to Ukraine.”

The Senate bill authorizes $350 million for military training and arms including anti-tank and anti-armor weaponry, artillery targeting systems, and surveillance drones. The bill legislation would also designate Ukraine, as well as Moldova and Georgia, as “major non-NATO allies.”

Members of Congress have traveled to Ukraine in growing numbers in recent weeks, with some of the Democrats expressing frustration with what they consider to be Obama’s tepid support for Kiev once they’ve returned.

Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, now rejects Obama’s no-lethal-assistance stance and is calling for the US to provide surface-to-air missiles and ammunition to the Ukrainian military. He says Poroshenko’s visit is an opportunity for Obama to revise his position and show more robust support for Ukraine.

Obama may very well announce some increased economic assistance, but some analysts say it is unlikely to be anything near the billions of dollars in financial support the government needs.

A large military assistance package seems even less likely. Offering a hint, State Department officials continue to insist that the US does not see a military solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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