Ashton Carter, the nominee to be the next Defense Secretary, said at his Senate confirmation hearing today that he is inclined toward providing lethal arms to Ukraine’s beleaguered military.
He also told the committee that the important thing after defeating ISIS is to maintain a “lasting defeat” so the organization does not re-emerge.
Carter has faced little criticism from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee who are expected to speedily refer his nomination to a full senate vote.
When asked by committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, if he favored providing defensive arms to the Ukrainian military fighting Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Carter said, “I very much incline in that direction.”
He added, “we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves.”
Carter couldn’t specify what types of weapons should be considered but said, “I incline in the direction of providing them with arms, including to get to what I'm sure your question is, lethal arms.”
Carter’s comments would be in line with that of other senior Obama administration officials, including current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Multiple senior U.S. officials have confirmed to ABC News that Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s military commander, has been the strongest advocate in providing the Ukrainian military with defensive weapons.
Later in the hearing Carter explained that while he is leaning towards providing arms to Ukraine “the economic and political pressure on Russia has to remain the main center of gravity at our effort at pushing back.”
He said the implications of providing lethal military assistance have to be considered and “one does need to think two and even three steps ahead in this matter."
Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to discuss the issue with Ukrainian leaders when he visits Kiev on Thursday.
A think tank report issued earlier this week by prominent former U.S. officials -- including Michele Flournoy and James Stavridis -- urged the Obama administration to provide Ukraine with counter-battery radars that could target incoming artillery fire, counter-jamming equipment and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Later McCain, a frequent critic of the administration’s ISIS strategy for Syria, urged Carter to re-examine the idea of training Syrian opposition forces where they could become targets of the forces of the Assad regime.
“Sending young Syrians, training them in Saudi Arabia, and sending them into Syria to be barrel bombed by Bashar al Assad. The morality of that alone, much less the unworkability of it, is in contradiction to everything the U.S. has ever stood for or fought for.”
When asked by Sen. Jack Reed,D-R.I., if ISIS was the greatest threat in the Middle East Carter said there was a dual threat to the region posed by both ISIS and Iran. "I hesitate to say ISIL only, because in the back of my mind is Iran, as well,” said Carter. "So I think that we have two immediate, substantial dangers in the Middle East. One is [ISIS] and one is Iran.”
Carter said that he was willing to consider the administration’s drawdown of 10,600 military trainers from Afghanistan over the next two years.
He described the drawdown as “a plan” that can be revised if needed and “if I'm confirmed, and I ascertain as the years go by that we need to change that plan, I will recommend those changes to the president.”
During a break in the hearing McCain told reporters he expected Carter’s nomination to be voted quickly out of his committee for a full senate vote.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Hagel left Washington today for Brussels where he will attend a gathering of NATO Defense Ministers. The trip is expected to be one of his official acts as Defense Secretary since he announced his resignation in late November.