WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday that the U.S. intends to keep pressuring Russia to cease its “aggression” in the region and indicated that he supports supplying Ukraine with lethal defensive weaponry.
Mattis made the comments during a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on Ukraine’s independence day.
Mattis said the U.S. would maintain sanctions on Russia so long as it continues to occupy Crimea and support separatists in eastern Ukraine. He said that Russia is not upholding the Minsk Agreements, a 2015 cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and Russia.
“We do not and we will not accept Russia’s seizure of the Crimea, and despite Russia’s denials, we know they are seeking to redraw international border by force, undermining the sovereign and free nations of Europe,” Mattis said. “… Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you’re an aggressor, and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor since it’s their own territory where the fighting is happening.”
Former President Barack Obama had declined to provide Ukraine with lethal defensive equipment over concerns that it would be seen as a provocation by Russia.
Since 2015, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with $750 million in non-lethal military equipment — such as radars, vehicles, body armor and communications equipment.
Mattis said that he had traveled to Ukraine to strengthen ties, and to evaluate the security environment first hand.
“This permits me, better informed, to go back and advocate for what I believe you need, as brought to me by your minister of defense and certainly your president,” said Mattis.
His visit follows one by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Kiev in July.
Poroshenko said that he was “satisfied” with the discussions about defensive lethal weaponry he shared with Mattis, and made the case that Ukraine already responsibly uses such equipment, like anti-tank weapons.
“It would be just to increase the price if Russia make a decision to attack my troops and my territory, and that would be strong motivation to stop them from a very irresponsible step,” said Poroshenko.
He said that Russia still has some 3,000 in eastern Ukraine, urged Russia to withdraw its troops and stop supporting separatists. Poroshenko also expressed support for a new cease-fire and for the possibility of a United Nations peacekeeping force occupying the eastern Ukraine.