Jim Mattis, in Ukraine, Says U.S. Is Thinking of Sending Weapons

KIEV, Ukraine — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis vowed on Thursday to help Ukraine stand up to Russian violations of its sovereignty and signaled that the Trump administration was considering providing defensive weapons to the Ukrainian military.

President Barack Obama had resisted such a step, fearing it would be seen as a provocation by Russia. In the first visit to Ukraine by an American defense secretary in nearly a decade, Mr. Mattis seemed to be anticipating that argument.

“Defensive weapons are not provocative unless you are an aggressor, and clearly Ukraine is not an aggressor since it is their territory where the fighting is happening,” Mr. Mattis said at a joint news conference with Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko.

State and Defense Department officials have recommended that the United States provide Javelin anti-tank missiles and other defensive weapons to Ukraine to strengthen its forces and raise the potential cost to the Kremlin of a Russian attack.

But President Trump, who has consistently taken a more conciliatory position toward Russia than have his top national security advisers, has yet to take up the matter.

Mr. Mattis declined to disclose what he planned to recommend to Mr. Trump. Nor did he indicate any timetable for deciding the matter. But his comments suggested that he was sympathetic to supplying defensive weapons — long a topic of enormous interest in Ukraine.

“On the defensive lethal weapons, we are actively reviewing it,” he said. “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.”

While the Obama administration had rejected providing the Javelin anti-tank system to Ukraine, the context has shifted in recent years.

The failure of the Minsk peace agreement, which was negotiated by Russia, Ukraine and European nations in 2015, and Russia’s active military posture in the region, have combined to bring the issue to the fore, as has the change of administrations in Washington.

Mr. Poroshenko sought to buttress Ukraine’s case by saying that it had responsibly used the nonlethal systems it had already received from the United States, and asserting that the anti-tank weapon would be used to deter further Russian aggression.

“Any defensive weapons would be just to increase the price if Russia makes a decision to attack my troops and my territory,” he said.

Not all European nations necessarily agree. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, strongly opposed the provision of such weapons when it was considered by Mr. Obama in 2015, saying that they would merely inflame the military situation.

Mr. Mattis met with Mr. Poroshenko after participating in the commemoration of Ukraine’s 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. The American also held separate talks with Ukraine’s defense minister, Stepan Poltorak.

The previous American defense secretary to visit Kiev was Robert M. Gates in October 2007. Mr. Mattis stood on a parade-reviewing stand to the left of Mr. Poroshenko as the Ukrainian president awarded medals, one posthumously, to two Ukrainian soldiers who fought against separatists and their Russian allies in eastern Ukraine.

Soldiers from the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, a National Guard unit from Oklahoma that is involved in training Ukrainian troops, joined the military parade with Ukrainian units, which marched through the Maidan, the square where protests in 2014 led to the ouster of the pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych.

Mr. Mattis later placed flowers and stood for a moment in silence at a memorial for 100 demonstrators killed by pro-government snipers during the Maidan uprising.

He had been on the reviewing stand with Mr. Poroshenko, other dignitaries and fellow defense ministers. “What a day!” Mr. Mattis observed later. “This is a day that will live long in my memory: to feel the refreshing sense of independence, of freedom.”

British, Turkish, Georgian and East European defense ministers joined Mr. Mattis at the event, but German, French and other Western European defense ministers did not attend.

The United States has already provided about $750 million in nonlethal arms to Ukraine, including body armor, night-vision equipment, radios and Humvees, as well as radars to pinpoint the location of enemy mortars.

Mr. Poroshenko said that Russia still had an estimated 3,000 troops in eastern Ukraine. He also reaffirmed his support for a new cease-fire, and urged the Kremlin to withdraw its troops and to stop supplying the separatists.

Mr. Mattis concurred concurred that Russian troops were still in Eastern Ukraine. “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.

American military officials have already begun to think about how and where to train the Ukrainians to operate the Javelin missile system. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is among the officials who support providing defensive arms to Ukraine, according to administration officials who asked not to be identified because they were discussing internal deliberations.

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