President Donald Trump has approved a plan to provide Ukraine with heavy weapons, including anti-tank missiles, administration officials confirmed Friday.
The decision marks a significant escalation of U.S. military support for Kiev’s ongoing fight against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine. Included in the arms transfers are Javelin anti-tank missiles, a weapon long sought by the Ukrainian military to bolster its capability against Russian-made armored vehicles.
The State Department acknowledged Wednesday that Trump had previously approved an export license for light arms sales to Ukraine. At the time, department officials said they hadn’t “ruled out the option” of direct transfers of heavier weapons.
The administration notified Congress of its decision on heavy weapons on Friday, reports the Wall Street Journal. The State Department would not officially confirm the arms transfers include anti-armor weapons, saying only that the U.S. is providing “enhanced defensive capabilities” to Kiev.
“The United States has decided to provide Ukraine enhanced defensive capabilities as part of our effort to help Ukraine build its long-term defense capacity, to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to deter further aggression,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement released late Friday. “U.S. assistance is entirely defensive in nature, and as we have always said, Ukraine is a sovereign country and has a right to defend itself.”
Trump’s approval comes just days after Moscow withdrew from a temporary ceasefire agreement amid renewed hostilities between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists. More than 10,000 people have been killed in three years of fighting that began in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in response to the ouster of a pro-Russian regime in Kiev. Moscow also supported an uprising of Russian speaking rebels in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
Congress responded by authorizing weapons transfers in the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, but the Obama administration never exercised the option, fearing it would provoke Moscow into boosting its own provision of weapons to the separatists.
The Trump administration believes increased military support to Kiev will put additional pressure on Russia to withdraw from eastern Ukraine and adhere to the Minsk II agreement, a 2015 plan aimed at de-escalating tensions in the region. Top foreign policy officials, including Secrtary of State Rex Tillerson and Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, argue Moscow will only return to the negotiating table if the price of its intervention in Ukraine becomes too high.
Earlier this month, Tillerson said the situation in Ukraine is the biggest impediment to reconciliation between Washington and Moscow.
“We’ve made this clear to Russia from the very beginning, that we must address Ukraine,” Tillerson said at the time. “It stands as the single most difficult obstacle to us re-normalizing the relationship with Russia, which we badly would like to do.”
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