Ashton Carter, President Obama's nominee for secretary of Defense, said at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday that he was "very much inclined" to provide lethal arms to Ukrainian forces fighting Russia-backed separatists, staking out a position that goes beyond White House policy.
"We need to support Ukraine in defending themselves," Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Carter's comments fueled a growing debate inside the administration and Congress over whether the White House should start providing defensive weapons to the embattled government in Kiev to try to force Moscow to withdraw its support for eastern Ukraine's separatist insurgency.
Since the conflict erupted early last year, the U.S. has given only nonlethal aid to Ukraine's military, including medicine, night-vision goggles and armored vests. Some White House, State Department and Pentagon officials have begun to revisit the policy because of the failure of an agreement with Russian officials in September intended to bring about a cease-fire.
A bipartisan group of 11 senators, led by Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the panel's ranking Democrat, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, scheduled a news conference Thursday to urge the administration to provide "defensive lethal assistance" to Ukraine.
But the White House said Wednesday that President Obama had not changed his views and that the administration remained focused on applying economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Moscow to bring Russia to the negotiating table.
"That's going to continue to be our strategy," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. "The idea that we're going to provide enough assistance that would allow the Ukrainian military to be on par with the Russian military is unrealistic."
Obama is always reviewing his policy, however, and "is certainly interested in the views and insight" of his top advisors, Earnest said.
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said Carter's testimony was "perhaps a signal that there has been an evolution in the administration's thinking about the issue."
It's also possible that Carter's comments were intended to send a signal of firmness to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from pushing farther into Ukraine. Critics argue that arming Kiev would set off a dangerous escalation and would bolster Putin's arguments that the West is fomenting the conflict.
Some NATO countries, including Poland, the Baltic states, Canada and perhaps Britain, might join the United States if it decided to send weapons in what could become a proxy war with Russia. France and Germany have indicated they would not take part, but they have not rejected the idea of other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members providing arms.
Obama is scheduled to meet at the White House on Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is leading Europe in pursuing sanctions against Russia. Obama would want to coordinate with her before shifting course.
For now, Merkel appears firmly opposed to Germany sending weapons to Ukraine.
"Germany will not send Ukraine any deadly, lethal weapons," Merkel told a news conference Tuesday. "We are focusing on a diplomatic solution," she said, adding that "if the situation gets even worse ... it will be necessary to work on further sanctions."
Western sanctions, combined with a steep drop in the price of oil, have hurt the Russian economy, but Putin has shown no sign of backing down. Russia denies U.S. charges that it has sent troops into eastern Ukraine and is arming the rebels.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry is scheduled to visit Kiev on Thursday to meet with President Petro Poroshenko, but aides said Kerry was not expected to announce new policy there. The outgoing Pentagon chief, Chuck Hagel, will meet with NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
The NATO meeting is the first since leaders agreed in September to beef up NATO's defense posture in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and threats to Ukraine.
Carter's comments on Ukraine suggested he intended to speak his mind if confirmed, although he also vowed he would be "a stickler for the chain of command."
Obama's three secretaries of Defense — Hagel, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates — all chafed under what they later portrayed as White House micromanaging of Pentagon affairs.
Carter, 60, appeared to sail through the Senate panel's questioning. The former senior Pentagon official and Harvard professor was warmly welcomed by many on the committee, and his confirmation appears all but certain.
He underwent back surgery in December and was limping during breaks. Lawmakers repeatedly asked him about his health and whether he was comfortable sitting and answering questions for extended periods.
When the daylong hearing ended, McCain said he expected the full Senate to vote on the nomination early next week. Speaking to Carter, McCain said he wanted to move quickly "so you can get to work."
Carter was confirmed unanimously by the Senate for his two previous Pentagon positions under Obama: deputy Defense secretary, the No. 2 post, from which he resigned 14 months ago; and chief weapons buyer, the No. 3 post. He also served as an assistant secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration.
In his testimony, Carter decried the "malignant and savage terrorism" of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, Iran's expanding influence, and congressionally mandated government-wide spending cuts known as "sequestration."
"I very much hope that we can find a way together out of the wilderness of sequester," he said. "Sequester is risky to our defense, it introduces turbulence and uncertainty that are wasteful, and it conveys a misleadingly diminished picture of our power in the eyes of friends and foes alike."
The hearing also gave lawmakers a chance to voice concerns on military matters, including detainees held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; upgrading the nuclear weapons complex; and curbing sexual assaults in the military.
Carter said Iran and Islamic State posed the biggest threats to U.S. security, diverging from an assessment delivered to Congress on Tuesday by the Pentagon's intelligence chief, who identified Russia and China as the greatest potential threats to U.S. interests.
Hagel, the first Defense secretary to have served as an enlisted soldier, announced his resignation Nov. 24 under pressure from the White House and amid disagreements between the Pentagon and the White House over the president's strategy in the latest Middle East military campaign.
The administration proposed a budget this week that, if approved by Congress, would give the Pentagon $585 billion next year, blowing past the sequester spending caps and reversing a five-year decline in military spending.
Carter said the Pentagon needed to reduce its personnel but to improve compensation, training and equipment. He said he would seek to cut 20% of higher headquarters staff at the Defense Department.
"Issues and solutions change over time," he said.