WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Defense will provide $250 million to enhance Ukraine's military capabilities as the nation continues to battle Russia-backed separatists in its eastern regions.
The latest tranche of assistance is aimed at strengthening Ukraine's naval and ground forces through additional training and the provision of weapons, the Pentagon said in a statement on June 18.
Russia is supporting the separatists with "very serious hardware," including more than 450 tanks and 700 pieces of heavy equipment, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on the country that followed the Pentagon announcement.
Herbst told the Senate members that the United States should supply more weapons to Ukraine to stymie what he said is a plan by Russian President Vladimir Putin to weaken Europe and NATO.
"We are in a period of great-power conflict that pits the democratic world against revisionist authoritarians," Herbst said. "The U.S. has a vital interest in stopping Kremlin revisionism, and the place to do it is in Ukraine."
Putin can't afford a war that leads to a large number of dead Russian soldiers because citizens of his nation have shown little appetite for military action across the border, he told the Senate panel.
The funding from the Pentagon would enable Ukraine to acquire sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, counterartillery radars, and night-vision equipment among other items, the statement said.
The new tranche will bring total U.S. military support to Ukraine since 2014 to $1.5 billion.
Fighting between government forces and the separatists has killed some 13,000 people since the conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, shortly after Russia seized control of the country’s Crimean Peninsula.
Russia has provided military, economic, and political support to the separatist fighters who still control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Russian naval forces have become active in the conflict over the past 18 months as it seeks to strangle Ukraine's shipping industry, Herbst said. He recommended more support to battle the sea threat.
Republican Senator Rob Portman said there will be more aid coming as Congress debates a new bill that widens the array of military equipment available for Ukraine and hopes to have "good news shortly" for the country.
Portman said he was recently in Ukraine and that most people in the West don’t realize it is still a "hot war" in the eastern part of the country. He called it a key battleground for the Western world.
"[Ukraine] is in many respects the example of what we all talk about in terms of the competition between us and Russia and two different visions for the future," he said.
Kurt Volker, the special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, told senators that he had not seen "any indication" from Moscow that it wants to end the conflict.
The envoy said Russia isn't the only threat to the stability of Ukraine, pointing out that oligarchs often pull the strings behind the scene and stifle economic development.
He called on Congress to give Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s new president, as much support as possible, saying the 41-year-old former comic has a window of opportunity to break the oligarch hold.
Ukraine will hold parliamentary elections on July 21 which could see Zelenskiy gain significant support in the Verkhovna Rada to push through his reform agenda.
Zelenskiy will come to Washington for a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the coming weeks, Volker said.
"The future of Ukraine over the next five years will be shaped in the next three months," he told the senators.