Defense Secretary James Mattis said Thursday that the Trump administration is “actively reviewing” whether to provide weapons to Ukrainians who are fighting Russian-backed rebels.
“On the defensive lethal weapons, we are actively reviewing it,” Mattis said during a press conference alongside Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
“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 spoke during a visit to Kiev. He is the first Defense secretary to visit Ukraine since 2007 and his trip was timed to coincide with Ukrainian Independence Day, including participating in a ceremony to mark the occasion.
President Trump’s handling of the Ukrainian conflict has been highly scrutinized given his vocal desire to improve relations with Russia and the ongoing probes into alleged collusion between his presidential campaign and Moscow.
Several news outlets previously reported that the departments of Defense and State had recommended Trump send defensive weapons to Ukraine, such as Javelin antitank missiles.
Congress has given the president the authority to send Ukraine so-called lethal aid as it fights Russian-backed rebels in its east. Former President Obama opted not to use that authority for fear of provoking Russia and worsening the conflict, and instead sent only nonlethal aid.
Mattis on Thursday dismissed the idea that sending defensive lethal aid would be controversial.
“Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you’re an aggressor, and clearly, Ukraine is not an aggressor, since it’s their own territory where the fighting is happening,” he said.
Mattis declined to get into specifics of what he’s recommended to Trump, saying he owes the president “some confidentiality on that.”
Poroshenko sought to bolster Ukraine’s case for getting the weapons by saying the country has responsibly used nonlethal aid in the past.
“Any defensive weapons, it would be just to increase the price if Russia makes a decision to attack my troops and my territory,” he said. “And that would be strong motivation to stop them from the very irresponsible step.”
Mattis also called out Russia for failing to abide by the Minsk cease-fire agreement and said the United States would never accept Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
“We do not, and we will not, accept Russia’s seizure of the Crimea,” he said. “And despite Russia’s denials, we know they are seeking to redraw international borders by force, undermining the sovereign and free nations of Europe.”