Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday used the occasion of Ukrainian independence day to slam Moscow for its role in the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.
In a public statement wishing the Ukrainian people a happy national day, Tillerson punctuated his congratulations with an open rebuke of Russia’s military intervention.
“We commend your persistence in the face of great challenges, including the Russia-led conflict in Donbas and Russia’s occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea,” Tillerson said. “Despite the hardships you have endured, the people of Ukraine have shown a fierce determination to create economic opportunities, fight corruption, and strengthen their democratic institutions.”
Tillerson’s hard-edged statement came as Secretary of Defense James Mattis was visiting Kiev in a show of U.S. support for the Ukrainian government, which has been battling Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern Donbas region since 2014. Mattis blamed Russian aggression for the ongoing conflict on Thursday and said the U.S. would keep up pressure on Moscow through sanctions and, potentially, the supply of defensive weapons to Ukrainian forces.
“On the defensive lethal weapons, we are actively reviewing it, I will go back now having seen the current situation and be able to inform the secretary of state and the president in very specific terms what I recommend for the direction ahead,” Mattis told reporters, according to Reuters.
“Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor since it is their own territory where the fighting is happening,” he added.
Both Mattis and Tillerson have assured Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that the U.S. expects Russia to return Ukrainian occupied territory, including the disputed Crimean Peninsula. They have also called on Russia to abide by the terms of the 2015 Minsk II ceasefire agreement, which requires the withdrawal of all heavy weaponry, prisoner exchanges and local elections in the separatist-occupied provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, among other provisions.
However, the Minsk deal has thus far had little impact, as neither Russia nor Ukraine have shown any enthusiasm for implementing its framework.
In the absence of a broader peace plan, the so-called Normandy Four — Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany — brokered a new ceasefire timed to coincide with the beginning of the school year. Similar ceasefire agreements failed to hold in 2015 and 2016, but negotiations hope the new pact will serve as a basis to revive the Minsk accords or draw up a new compromise.
As the stalemate drags on, the Trump administration is under increasing pressure from some lawmakers and pro-Ukraine advocates to supply Kiev with lethal defensive weapons. Proponents of sending arms say it will give Ukrainian troops a decisive edge over the Russian-backed separatists. (RELATED: Pentagon, State Dept Want White House Approval To Arm Ukraine Against Russia-Backed Separatists)
On Wednesday, Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, reiterated his support for weapons transfers on Wednesday.
“Secretary Mattis’ visit to Kiev provides yet another opportunity for the United States to correct its policy toward Ukraine and provide the lethal defensive assistance the country needs to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said in a statement.
Pentagon officials have delivered a weapons plan for Ukraine to the White House, but President Donald Trump is still weighing a decision. The U.S. has sent $750 million in non-lethal aid to Ukraine since 2015, reports Reuters.
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