By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — A Russian official and separatist leader in eastern Ukraine took issue with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ assertion that providing lethal defense weapons to Ukraine would not be “provocative” on August 24.
Mattis during a visit to Kyiv said that the United States is “actively reviewing” whether to provide Ukraine with such weapons, including possibly powerful antitank missiles, and added:
“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,”
That prompted Boris Gryzlov, Russia’s chief negotiator on the Ukraine conflict, to say that the “ambition to acquire lethal weapons…is surely going to be perceived in Donbas as a very bad and threatening signal.”
Gryzlov also rejected Mattis’ statement that the Kyiv government is not an “aggressor.”
“No one should forget the standoff in eastern Ukraine is an internal political conflict that the country’s top echelons have already tried to curb by military force,” he said.
Separatist leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko responded to Mattis’ comments by saying: “As soon as Ukraine gets the weaponry, the Ukrainian Army will unleash military actions automatically the next day.”
Mattis, the first U.S. defense chief to visit Ukraine in a decade, took Ukraine’s side in the conflict earlier in the day, accusing Russia of seeking to “redraw international borders by force.”
Mattis also reiterated that the United States “won’t accept” Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
Mattis made the comments in Kyiv on August 24, the 26th anniversary of Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.
“Have no doubt,” he said at a joint news conference with President Petro Poroshenko. “The United States stands with Ukraine.”
“On the defensive lethal weapons, we are actively reviewing it,” Mattis said, adding that he will inform Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump about his position on the issue “in very specific terms.”
Mattis said sanctions against Moscow would remain in place until it stopped supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine and returns Crimea — the Black Sea peninsula seized by Russia in March 2014.
He repeated Washington’s commitment to diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine’s east, where fighting between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 10,000 people since April 2014.
The defense secretary also accused Russia of not abiding by the February 2015 Minsk agreement meant to put an end to the conflict.
“Despite Russia’s denials, we know they are seeking to redraw international borders by force, undermining the sovereign and free nations of Europe,” Mattis said.
He also said that the United States was committed to “building the capacity” of Ukraine’s armed forces.
Addressing a military parade attended by Mattis and several other Western defense chiefs, Poroshenko earlier said that “Ukraine is ready to give a tough military response to the aggressor if he tries to goes on the offensive” — a warning to Moscow and the separatists not seek to take more territory in eastern Ukraine.
But he said that Ukraine’s “priority” was a “peaceful, diplomatic, political, and law-based path to the return” of Crimea and separatist-held territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“I have confidence in our allies,” Poroshenko said. He thanked defense ministers and troops from Britain, Georgia, Estonia, Canada, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and the United States for attending or marching in the parade.
Trump had sent a letter of congratulations to Poroshenko, saying that the United States will continue to support Ukraine’s “sovereignty and integrity” and the country’s “aspirations of becoming a truly European nation,” according to the Ukrainian presidential website.
Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy for efforts to end the conflict in Ukraine, was also in the Ukrainian capital.
He told Current Time TV last month that the Trump administration was considering sending Kyiv weapons to help government forces defend themselves against the separatists.
Volker told the Russian-language network, which is run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, that he did not think arming Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons would “provoke Russia to do more than they are already doing.”
U.S. media reported on August 6 that the Pentagon had recommended sending a package of lethal defensive military aid to Ukraine worth about $50 million.
The weapons package would reportedly include Javelin shoulder-launched antitank missiles, which Kyiv has long sought to defend against the Russia-backed forces it has been fighting in its east for more than three years.
Truce To Begin
Ukraine’s Independence Day celebrations come as the Kyiv government and separatists committed to a cease-fire before the start of the September 1 return to school for children.
Martin Sajdik, the envoy for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on the Ukraine crisis, said on August 23 that an “indefinite” cease-fire would commence at midnight on August 25.
Several truce deals announced as part of the Minsk agreement have failed to hold.
In a statement, the chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, Ertugrul Apakan, called the truce ” an encouraging joint, political signal from all signatories” of the Minsk agreement.
The deal set out steps to end the war and resolve the status of the portion of the Donbas region held by Russia-backed separatists, but progress toward implementation has been very slow.
Separatist leader Denis Pushilin was quoted on the separatists’ main news site late on August 23 as saying that his fighters “supported a stable and universal cease-fire along the contact line” in the Donbas.
The latest cease-fire was agreed late on August 22 during a phone call between the leaders of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine — the so-called “Normandy Four.”
In the call, Poroshenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron all voiced strong support for a lasting cease-fire to allow children in eastern Ukraine to attend school at the start of the new term, the Kremlin and Poroshenko’s press service said.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and for its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.