A pro-Russian separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has announced a "general mobilization" with the aim of bolstering separatist armed forces to as many as 100,000 fighters.
Alexander Zakharchenko, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, was quoted by the separatist DAN news agency Monday as saying that "the enemy" – meaning the Ukrainian government – is increasing the number of its forces in the southern part of the Donetsk region, "likely for an attack," and that the mobilization was thus needed to "balance the situation."
He said the recruitment drive would start in 10 days and initially would seek volunteers.
Zakharchenko said plans call for combining the forces of the Donetsk republic with those in the neighboring self-declared Luhansk People's Republic, which would total roughly 100,000 fighters.
He also was quoted as saying he hoped the mobilization would make it possible to add at least five additional brigades – one tank, one artillery and three motorized infantry brigades – to the separatist forces by this spring.
He gave no indication where the military hardware to equip these forces would come from. Ukraine and Western governments say Russia has been sending weaponry and personnel into eastern Ukraine to back the separatists, a charge Moscow denies.
US hasn't decided on lethal aid
Meanwhile, the United States has not decided whether to provide Ukraine with lethal military assistance in its fight against the separatists, a State Department spokeswoman said Monday following a New York Times report that such aid was being considered.
Spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at the department's daily briefing that there is an "ongoing discussion" but that no decisions had been made. The Times reported Sunday that the Obama administration is taking a "fresh look" at the question of military aid.
In December, Obama signed legislation authorizing $350 million in lethal and nonlethal military aid to Kyiv.
But a White House spokesman at the time said the president had misgivings about delivering such hardware – a move that many analysts said would be viewed by Russia as a major Western military provocation.
Psaki on Monday said Washington is particularly concerned about "escalating separatist violence" and the rebels' attempts to expand the territory they control beyond the cease-fire line agreed to last September in Minsk, Belarus. Fighting has raged in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, especially around the Ukrainian-controlled town of Debaltseve, since peace talks in Belarus between Ukraine's government and the separatists collapsed on Saturday.
"Naturally, we take into account events on the ground and events that are ongoing," Psaki said.
Intent on diplomatic, political solutions
She said that the focus remains finding a political and diplomatic solution and that the U.S. and its Western allies have no interest in engaging in a proxy war with Russia.
"Our objective here is to change the behavior of Russia," Psaki said. "That’s the reason why we’ve put the sanctions in place."
Economic sanctions remain the preferred tool for altering that behavior, Ben Rhodes, deputy White House national security adviser, told CNN later on Monday.
"We still think that the best way to influence Russia's calculus is through those economic sanctions that are biting deep into the Russian economy," Rhodes said in an interview with the news channel. "We don't think the answer to the crisis in Ukraine is simply to inject more weapons."
In addition to sanctions, the U.S. has provided more than $118 million in training and nonlethal assistance to help Ukraine.
The Times on Sunday quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying three leaders – Secretary of State John Kerry, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and Susan Rice, President Barack Obama's national security adviser – were open to new discussions about providing lethal assistance to Ukrainian forces.
The Times said outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel already supported giving defensive weapons to the government forces, which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had asked for in November.
It also reported that an independent report being released Monday by eight former senior American officials, urging the United States to send $3 billion in defensive arms and equipment to Ukraine, is "fueling the broader debate" in Washington.
New approach urged
It's time for the U.S. to change its approach, Brookings Institution analyst Stephen Pifer told VOA. He was part of a group of U.S. foreign policy experts that met with government officials in Brussels and Ukraine, where they discussed the country’s need for lethal assistance.
The group recommended "that the U.S. government also change its policy, which currently provides only for nonlethal assistance," he said.
"The biggest Ukrainian requirement in that area is for light anti-armor weapons," Pifer said. "The Ukrainian stockpile of such weapons is at least 20 years old, and we were told that about three-quarters of those weapons simply do not work."
NATO official sees 'pattern'
NATO military commander General Philip Breedlove also supports providing the lethal assistance to Ukraine, The Times reported Sunday.
NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow said Monday what he called "Russia’s aggression against Ukraine" is not an isolated incident, but "a game-changer in European security" that "reflects an evolving pattern of behavior that has been emerging for several years.”
NATO must "stay united, stay firm and increase the costs to Russia of its aggression," Vershbow said in a speech to the Nobel Institute in Oslo.
Also Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany will not provide weapons to Ukraine. Speaking in Budapest after meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Merkel said the conflict in Ukraine cannot be solved by military means.
Obama will host Merkel at the White House next Monday. An administration representative said the two leaders will discuss a range of issues, including Ukraine.
Kerry is scheduled to visit Kyiv on Thursday.
Obama pledges more pressure
Obama on Sunday said the Kremlin has not recognized it's in Russia's interests to resolve the issue over the long term.
He told CNN television that rebels are Russian-financed, Russian-trained and reliant on the Kremlin for military strategy. He said his administration will continue pressuring Moscow economically, while conveying to Russian President Vladimir Putin that diplomatic resolutions remain available.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday that Obama's "rhetoric" in his interview with CNN shows Washington intends to continue to "unreservedly support the Kyiv government," which, he said, has apparently decided to resolve the conflict through the use of military force.
The Ukraine conflict has killed more than 5,100 people since it erupted last April following Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
On the ground
Ukraine authorities said Monday five soldiers had been killed in eastern Ukraine over the past day, while municipal authorities in Donetsk said 15 civilians had been killed there in the past few days.
Russia's Tass news agency on Monday quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying Putin is "extremely concerned" about the situation in eastern Ukraine and is calling for the two sides to halt the fighting.
Fighting has raged in the self-declared separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, especially around the Ukrainian-held town of Debaltseve, since peace talks in Belarus between Ukraine's government and the separatists collapsed on Saturday.
A statement from the trilateral contact group trying to advance the talks said rebel envoys were not prepared to discuss implementation of a cease-fire and withdrawal of heavy weapons.
Instead, contact group representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said rebel envoys wanted to revisit the now-failed Minsk agreement that laid the groundwork for a truce in September.
That cease-fire has been repeatedly violated and collapsed completely last week when rebels announced the start of a new offensive designed to expand their territory.
VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins contributed to this report.