Mattis Vows Aid, Not Necessarily Weapons, to Ukraine

President Petro Poroshenko, left, and Pentagon chief Jim Mattis discussed US plans to help the Ukrainian military.(Genya SAVILOV/AFP)
President Petro Poroshenko, left, and Pentagon chief Jim Mattis discussed US plans to help the Ukrainian military.(Genya SAVILOV/AFP)

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday pledged continued aid to Ukraine as it clashes with pro-separatist, Russian-backed forces on its eastern borders but stopped short of saying whether the U.S. would supply the country with weapons in the three-year-old conflict.

"We do not, and we will not, accept Russia's seizure of Crimea and despite Russia's denials, we know they are seeking to redraw international borders by force, undermining the sovereign and free nations of Europe," he said during the joint press conference with Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev.

Mattis is the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Ukraine since Robert Gates in 2007. The secretary's visit coincided with Ukraine's celebration of its 26th Independence Day.

"Have no doubt, the United States stands with Ukraine," he said. "The U.S. will continue to press Russia to honor its Minsk commitments and our sanctions will remain in place until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered them."

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The Minsk II agreements stipulate a withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines, with such movements approved by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Speculations in the news media that Mattis would for the first time announce the U.S. would provide lethal weapons -- such as javelin anti-tank missiles -- to Ukraine did not materialize.

Instead Mattis said the U.S. in recent years has pledged $750 million in non-lethal military equipment for Ukraine, including $175 million to the country's efforts in fighting pro-Russian separatists in the east.

When the secretary was asked, as a matter of principle, if he believes in arming the Ukrainians, or if it would create more turmoil and would escalate tensions with Russia, he demurred.

"Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you're an aggressor," he said. "And clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor since it's their own territory where the fighting is happening."

Mattis said he would not like to elaborate further because he owes President Donald Trump more "confidentiality on that."

Poroshenko earlier in the conference said defending Ukraine does not solely rely on lethal weapons but also on "electronic defense," among other capabilities, and how the U.S. has chosen to respond thus far has created a stronger partnership.

Poroshenko said he was "satisfied" with actions and negotiations made in Kiev Thursday.

Mattis said, "I believe no relationship stays the same. It either gets weaker or stronger -- and by being here I'm making a statement that we intend to strengthen the relationship between our two countries.

He added, "I need to come here to better understand the situation your soldiers face on the front lines," saying such a visit will allow him to advocate more clearly in Washington, D.C., on what specialized equipment is needed.

On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- and an avid supporter of arming Ukraine -- said that supplying Ukrainian soldiers with better means of defending themselves is long overdue.

"It is long past time for the United States to provide Ukraine the defensive lethal assistance it needs to deter and defend against further Russian aggression," he said in a statement.

"Raising the cost of aggression may help to change [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's calculus, pressure Russia to fully comply with the Minsk agreements, and, ultimately, create more stable security conditions on the ground that are essential for peace," McCain said.

The senator added, "In other words, providing defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine is not opposed to a peaceful resolution of this conflict -- it is essential to achieving it."

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to train with Ukraine's soldiers. Specifically, the California National Guard is preparing for Exercise Rapid Trident next month at the International Peacekeeping Security Center near Yavoriv, in Ukraine's western region.

Rapid Trident will have approximately 1,800 personnel from 14 nations, including Bulgaria, Canada, Estonia, Italy, Georgia, Lithuania, Moldova, Norway, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The Air Force training component for Rapid Trident is going to consist of "C-130J aircraft and about 40 U.S. personnel," U.S. Air Forces Europe spokesman Gabe Myers told Military.com Thursday.

The integrated training for the aircraft and airmen will be held at Starokonstantinov air base, Myers said.

"They're going to be training on aeromedical evacuation, tactical airlift, logistics, planning, and search and recovery. So it's just another example of the jointness, the partnering with allies and nations that we do all over the theater," Myers said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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