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US tilts toward arming Ukraine

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is tilting toward sending arms to Ukraine to help it fight Russian-backed rebels as three Cabinet-level officials head to Europe for consultations with Ukrainian officials and NATO allies in Brussels, Kiev and Munich.

As President Barack Obama's pick to run the Pentagon said Wednesday he's inclined to support lethal weapons transfers, Ukraine's president said he was confident the U.S. would do so. Meanwhile, outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry were flying to discuss Ukraine and other issues with allies in Europe. Vice President Joe Biden is due to follow them on Thursday.

"I very much incline in that direction ... because I think we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves," Defense Secretary-nominee Ashton Carter told Congress at his confirmation hearing when asked if the administration should provide defensive weapons to Kiev.

The remarks were the latest in a series of signals this week that the White House may reverse its opposition to arming Ukraine to help its struggling military repel Moscow-backed insurgents — despite concerns that might escalate the conflict, turn it into an overt proxy war with Russia and set Washington at odds with its European partners.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key ally in pressuring Russia to end its support for the rebels, said Tuesday that there is no military solution to the crisis and that Germany will not supply weapons to Ukraine.

In Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko said his government badly needs lethal aid to help repel the separatist attacks in the conflict that that has left 5,300 people dead. And, he said he was convinced it would be coming.

"I don't have a slightest doubt that the decision to supply Ukraine with weapons will be made by the United States as well as by other partners of ours because we need to have the capabilities to defend ourselves," he said on a Tuesday visit to the government-controlled city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.

Poroshenko will have an opportunity to make his case in person to Kerry, who will be in Kiev on Thursday, and then later in the week to Biden and to Merkel when all four will be at an international security conference in Munich. It what is likely to be a tense meeting, Kerry also plans to see Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Munich conference.

Despite the presence on the continent of the trio of top Obama national security aides, the White House and State Department both said any announcement of a change in policy would not likely happen this week.

Biden travels first to Brussels, where he will join with Hagel for meetings with top NATO officials to discuss the situation in Ukraine, which has deteriorated badly in recent weeks amid a new surge in rebel activity.

That escalation in fighting has prompted the reconsideration of lethal aid.

Specifically, senior American officials previewing Biden's trip said the U.S. had taken note of how the separatists had pushed beyond established lines of control and that Russia was resupplying the separatists "in a very significant way." The officials briefed reporters ahead of Biden's trip on condition of anonymity.

While in Europe, Biden will also discuss with Poroshenko and others increased financial assistance to Ukraine as well as the possibility of increasing sanctions on Russia in the event it does not change course, according to the officials. They added that the U.S. still does not see a military solution to the conflict.

In his congressional testimony, Carter reiterated the U.S. view that Russia's support for the rebels is "a clear violation" of a 1994 commitment Moscow made to respect the sovereignty of the newly independent Ukraine as part of Ukraine's agreement to give up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the former Soviet Union.

The so-called Budapest Agreement "provided for Russia to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which it's obviously not done," Carter told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "And that is part of the climate and context in which the Ukrainians agreed to give up nuclear weapons in the first place."

Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.