On the 26th anniversary of Ukraine's independence from Moscow, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis accused Russia of menacing Europe and suggested that he favors providing Ukraine with defensive lethal weapons.
Mattis also said the Trump administration will not accept Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
After attending a spirted and colorful independence day parade, Mattis met with President Petro Poroshenko and other top government leaders. He is the first Pentagon chief to visit the former Soviet republic since Robert Gates in 2007.
"Have no doubt," Mattis said at a news conference with Poroshenko. "The United States stands with Ukraine." He said Washington does not, "and we will not," accept Russia's annexation of Crimea, a 2014 action that was followed by Russian military intervention in support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko told reporters that Crimea is Ukrainian territory. "It should come back to Ukraine," he said.
Mattis was blunt in his criticism of Russia and said his presence in Kiev is intended as a statement of the depth of American commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty.
"Despite Russia's denials, we know they are seeking to redraw international borders by force," Mattis said, an ambition by Moscow that the secretary said is undermining sovereign European nations and stirring tension.
Asked by a reporter whether he agrees with the Obama administration's view that selling defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine would provoke Moscow, Mattis replied, "Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you're an aggressor."
Mattis declined to say explicitly what he would recommend to the White House on the weapons issue. He did not say so, but it is known that the Pentagon and the State Department have recommended going ahead with defensive weapons transfers to Ukraine.
Poroshenko sidestepped the question of how soon he expects a White House decision on arms. He said, however, that Moscow should realize that stepping up U.S. military support for Kiev "would increase the price if Russia made the decision to attack my troops and my territory."
Poroshenko said an estimated 3,000 "regular" Russian troops are in eastern Ukraine.
In his remarks, Mattis cited agreements and commitments that Moscow has made since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, including a two-year-old accord known as the Minsk Agreement, which lays out a roadmap for reducing the conflict in Ukraine that has claimed some 10,000 lives over the past three years. He also cited other Russian commitments to Ukraine dating to 1994.
"Unfortunately, Russia is not adhering to the letter, much less the spirit of these international commitments," he said.
"We in the United States understand the strategic challenges associated with Russian aggression," Mattis added.
It has been known for weeks that the Trump administration has reopened consideration of long-rejected plans to give Ukraine lethal weapons.
Those deliberations put pressure on President Donald Trump, who is fighting perceptions he is soft on Moscow amid investigations into whether his campaign colluded with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
In his remarks alongside Poroshenko, Mattis said the U.S. is committed to helping Ukraine build and modernize its armed forces.
Sen. John McCain, a vocal critic of President Barack Obama's cautious approach to assisting the Ukrainian army, said Wednesday that Trump should change that course.
"It is long past time for the United States to provide Ukraine the defensive lethal assistance it needs to deter and defend against further Russian aggression," McCain said in a statement.
"Raising the cost of aggression may help to change Vladimir Putin's calculus, pressure Russia to fully comply with the Minsk agreements, and, ultimately, create more stable security conditions on the ground that are essential for peace."
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