WASHINGTON -- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will address Ukraine's parliament next week during a visit U.S. officials say is aimed at showing Ukraine -- and Russia -- Washington’s continued support for Kyiv.
A senior U.S. administration official said on December 2 that in his address to the Verkhovna Rada, Biden would reiterate U.S. opposition to Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and support for Ukraine's debt-restructuring agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international lenders, the official said.
The December 8 speech will be preceded by talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, officials said.
Biden is the highest-ranking U.S. official to speak before the Ukrainian parliament since U.S. President George H.W. Bush in 1991, during the waning days of the Soviet Union.
Biden has visited Ukraine four times since peaceful protests began in the streets of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in November 2013 over a proposed deal between Ukraine and the European Union. Those protests morphed into violent clashes and culminated in February 2014 with then-President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country.
Open fighting in eastern Ukraine has ebbed in recent months, after the signing of the Minsk cease-fire accords, though there are daily reports of mortar fire and exchange of fire in regions surrounding the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
U.S. and European officials say Russia, and the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, continue to violate the Minsk accords. Moscow, for its part, has accused Ukrainian security forces of violations, and says Poroshenko’s government is not moving fast enough to implement some of the accord’s provisions, like local elections.
Biden’s visit comes just days after U.S. President Barack Obama signed new defense-policy legislation for 2015 that includes $300 million in aid and equipment for Ukraine. Of that figure, Congress earmarked $50 million for lethal weaponry, something Ukraine has been requesting for months now.
However, the White House has said no lethal weaponry -- things like antiarmor weapon systems, mortars, “crew-served weapons and ammunition,” grenade launchers and ammunition, and small arms and ammunition -- would be forthcoming.
Administration officials told reporters on December 2 that the United States has provided around $450 million in assistance over the past two years, about half of which included security equipment such as body armor, Humvees, and communication equipment.
Last month, Ukraine took delivery of counterbattery radars, which help troops defend against artillery attacks. John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said up to 80 percent of Ukraine’s casualties in the fighting have come from artillery fire.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has continued to telegraph its intentions should any lethal weaponry be delivered.
“Given the fact that the hostilities have ceased and cases of shelling are rare, it is unclear why would the U.S. Congress adopt resolutions making it possible to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons," Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted as telling the Interfax news agency on November 13, three days after the defense-policy legislation got final congressional approval.
“The question arises as to whether there is a desire to spark a war or provoke hostilities,” Putin said.
Administration officials have tried to emphasize that while no lethal weaponry was forthcoming, the assistance included more funding for training regular armed force units, something that the Defense Department began last week.
“What would be a game-changer is fundamental reform of the Ukraine security sector and institutional quality of their armed forces because that’s frankly what’s going to allow Ukraine to resist Russia over time,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Biden will also be discussing the problem of reforms aimed at rooting out Ukraine’s deeply entrenched problem of corruption.
In September, the current U.S. ambassador to Ukraine offered blunt criticism of the country’s Prosecutor-General’s Office, which he said was aggressively undermining reform.
“The Office of the Prosecutor-General itself is in desperate need of reform,” the senior U.S. administration official reiterated on December 2.