The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies are developing plans that would enable the Obama administration to provide specific locations of surface-to-air missiles controlled by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine so the Ukrainian government could target them for destruction, U.S. officials said.
But the proposal has not yet been debated in the White House, a senior administration official said. It is unclear whether President Barack Obama, who already has approved limited intelligence sharing with Ukraine, will agree to give more precise information about potential military targets, a step that would involve the United States more deeply in the conflict.
Already, the question of what kind of intelligence support to give the Ukrainian government has become part of a larger debate within the administration about how directly to confront Russia's President Vladimir Putin and how big a role Washington should take in trying to stop Russia's rapid delivery of powerful weapons to eastern Ukraine.
At the core of the debate, said several officials -- who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the policy deliberations are still in progress -- is whether the U.S. goal should simply be to shore up a Ukrainian government reeling from the separatist attacks, or to send a stern message to Mr. Putin by aggressively helping Ukraine target the missiles Russia has provided. Those missiles have taken down at least five aircraft in the past 10 days, including Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Since the downing of Flight 17, a civilian jet, the flow of heavy arms into eastern Ukraine has drastically increased, the Pentagon and the State Department said Friday, citing U.S. intelligence reports. The Obama administration already is sharing with the Ukrainians satellite photographs and other evidence of the movement of troops and equipment along the Ukrainian-Russian border. But a senior administration official acknowledged late Friday that the data were "historical in nature," hours or even days old, and not timely enough to use in carrying out airstrikes or other direct attacks.
"We've been cautious to date about things that could directly hit Russia -- principally its territory," but also its equipment, the official said. A proposal to give the Ukrainians real-time information "hasn't gotten to the president yet," the official said, in part because the White House has been focused on rallying support among European allies for more stringent economic sanctions against Moscow, and on gaining access for investigators to the Malaysia Airlines crash site.
But the official added that the decision on whether to provide targeting information would soon become "part of the intel mix."
Russia lashed out Saturday at the latest round of Ukraine-related sanctions imposed by the European Union, saying they endanger the fight against international terrorism, and accused the United States of spreading flagrant lies about Russia's alleged involvement in the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine.
The EU sanctions, announced on Friday, impose travel bans and asset freezes on 15 people, including the head of Russia's Federal Security Service and the head of the agency's department overseeing international operations and intelligence. Four members of Russia's national security council are also on the list.
A Foreign Ministry statement denounced the sanctions, saying they show the EU is taking "a complete turn away from joint work with Russia on international and regional security, including the fight against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism [and] organized crime."
"We are sure the decisions will be greeted enthusiastically by international terrorists," the ministry said.
In a separate statement, the ministry said the United States is conducting "an unrelenting campaign of slander against Russia, ever more relying on open lies."
Ukraine government troops were engaged in a pitched battle with rebels Saturday just outside the separatist bastion of Donetsk and plan to advance next into the city that has been at the heart of the pro-Russian insurgency.
If the army succeeds in retaking Horlivka, a city of almost 300,000 people where fighting was fierce Saturday, they will be within a few miles of Donetsk. Rebels have held sway there since the spring, ruling what they call the Donetsk People's Republic. Cars created roadblocks out of town Saturday, and the railway station was packed with people desperate to board the next train out.
The military already has ousted rebels from 10 surrounding villages and towns over the past week and blocked roads into and out of Donetsk to prevent replenished supplies from entering the city, according to Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Security and Defense Council.
The debate over providing information about potential military targets gives the first insight into the Obama administration's thinking on long-term strategies to bolster Ukraine, counter Russia and reassure nervous Eastern European nations, some of which have joined NATO in recent years.
Plans to share more precise targeting information with Ukraine have the strong backing of senior Pentagon officials and would fit broadly into Obama's emerging national security doctrine of supporting allied and partner nations in defending their territory without direct U.S. military involvement.
Several senior U.S. military and intelligence officials are arguing that if Mr. Putin does not encounter significant resistance to Russia's moves in Ukraine, he may be emboldened to go further. And a senior State Department official said Saturday that Secretary of State John Kerry supported sharing intelligence on the locations of surface-to-air missiles that Russia has supplied the separatists.
Another senior official said there were questions whether the Ukrainian military, even if given targeting coordinates, had the reach and the precision to strike Russian-supplied anti-aircraft batteries. T
Ukraine is not a NATO ally, complicating the question of how to support its government.
"The debate is over how much to help Ukraine without provoking Russia," a senior official participating in the U.S. discussions said.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado on Thursday, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seemed to allude to the internal arguments when he said: "We have a very active, ongoing process to think through what support we may provide to Ukraine. That debate is ongoing."
Associated Press and The Washington Post contributed.