Mattis to Visit Ukraine Amid Russian Resurgence

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with Netherlands' Minister of Defence Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Aug. 15, 2017. (DOD/ Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with Netherlands' Minister of Defence Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Aug. 15, 2017. (DOD/ Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is set to travel to Ukraine, becoming the first U.S. defense secretary to visit the country since Robert Gates, the Pentagon announced Friday.

Mattis will meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak on Aug. 24, Ukraine's independence day.

"During these engagements, the secretary will reassure our Ukrainian partners that the U.S. remains firmly committed to the goal of restoring Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as strengthening the strategic defense partnership between our two countries," the Defense Department said.

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Mattis' trip comes as the United States is mulling giving Ukraine lethal weapons after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its ongoing incursion into Ukraine's eastern border regions.

The U.S. has given Ukraine's military non-lethal supplies, including night-vision goggles, uniforms and surveillance equipment such as Raven RQ-11B Analog mini-drones.

But U.S. officials worry -- with seemingly endless breakouts of hostilities between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine's national guard -- that the conflict will prolong without expanded support.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, an avid supporter of arming Ukraine since then-President Barack Obama cautioned against lethal weapons, has raised the issue repeatedly with defense officials.

During Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan's confirmation hearing in June, McCain was unhappy with the incoming deputy's answers about providing arms to Ukraine.

"It's still disturbing to me after all these years that you would say that you have to look at the issue," the senator said. "Have you not been aware of the issue? Have you not been aware of the actions of the Senate Armed Services Committee? Have you not been aware of the thousands of people that have been killed by Vladimir Putin? Have you missed all that in your duties at one of the major defense corporations in this country?"

Mattis will also travel to Turkey and Jordan next week, meeting with his counterparts to discuss the ongoing air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The SecDef will begin his overseas trip in Jordan -- his first visit there in his current job -- on Aug. 21, meeting with King Abdullah II, supreme commander, and Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Freihat, chairman of Jordan's Joint Chiefs of Staff, the DoD said.

Mattis will then travel to Turkey to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Minister of National Defense Nurettin Canikli and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Çavusoğlu.

U.S. relations with Turkey, a key ally in the fight against ISIS, have degraded in recent months, given tensions over Kurdish militia operating in Syria close to Turkey's borders.

The U.S. backs the Kurds, and in May began sending small arms to the group. Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG, or the People's Protection Units, a terrorist group linked to the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which has carried out attacks in southeastern Turkey.

The U.S. regards the YPG as the most effective anti-ISIS force in northeastern Syria.

"Secretary Mattis will emphasize the steadfast commitment of the United States to Turkey as a NATO ally and strategic partner, seek to collaborate on efforts to advance regional stability, and look for ways to help Turkey address its legitimate security concerns -- including the fight against the PKK," the DoD said.

Turkey, meanwhile, has cozied up to Russia and Iran in recent weeks.

In July, the NATO member agreed to purchase four Russian-made S-400 mobile missile batteries for $2.5 billion over the next few years.

Erdoğan this month agreed to expand military cooperation with joint drills with Iran after sitting down with Iran's Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Baqeri.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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