The threat of a proxy war in Ukraine between the US and Russia is looming larger, amid signs the White House is considering arming the Ukrainian military in its battle against Russian-backed separatists.
Washington has so far refused to supply weapons to the pro-Western Ukrainian government, but reports suggest that a number of US President Barack Obama's advisers are warming to the idea.
According to the 'New York Times', Gen Philip Breedlove, Nato's military commander, supports providing arms and equipment to Ukraine's hard-pressed forces.
Other senior officials, including John Kerry, the US secretary of state, are also said to be open to shifting American policy and sending weapons to Kiev.
It is not clear if the growing number of hawks will be able to sway Mr Obama, who has so far been reluctant to escalate the stand-off with Russia beyond economic sanctions.
While the US and European sanctions have taken a toll on Russia's economy, they have not succeeded in convincing President Vladimir Putin to end his intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Instead, Russian troops and tanks have continued to pour over the border in support of separatists and a ceasefire agreement between the two sides has collapsed into full-scale fighting.
More than 5,100 people have been killed since the conflict began last spring, according to the UN. About 50 people died over the weekend.
Heavy fighting between the separatists and Ukrainian troops continued in eastern Ukraine yesterday, as Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the rebels, announced a general mobilisation.
"We intend to mobilise the necessary number of people to bring the size of our army up to 100,000 people," said Mr Zakharchenko, in quotes carried by a rebel news website. "It will be a voluntary mobilisation."
The call-up would allow the rebels to form three new motorised rifle brigades, one artillery and one tank brigade by spring, he added, giving the chance to "repel any strike".
A spokesman for the US State Department did not deny America was considering sending weapons, but said no decision had been made. "I don't think anybody wants to get into a proxy war with Russia and that is not our objective here. Our objective is to change the behaviour of Russia," she said.
A group of well-respected former US officials and academics released a report yesterday arguing that the fighting in Ukraine showed the need for Washington to begin arming Kiev's forces. "The West needs to bolster deterrence in Ukraine by raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive," the report said.
Its authors included James Stavridis, Gen Breedlove's predecessor as Nato's military commander, and Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon official who would be in the running to become US defence secretary if Hillary Clinton wins the next election.
The report called for America to give the Ukrainians anti-tank weapons for use against Russian armoured vehicles. Most of Kiev's anti-tank stockpile is from the Soviet era and about 70pc of the weapons are reportedly unusable.
Britain has so far supplied non-lethal support to Kiev. A Foreign Office spokesman indicated that Britain was unlikely to begin sending arms. "We are clear that there cannot be a military solution to this crisis," he said. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, categorically ruled out her country sending arms, saying: "It is my firm belief that this conflict cannot be solved militarily." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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