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Visiting Pentagon Chief Says U.S. Will Continue To Support Ukraine Against Russian 'Aggression'

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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (right) and Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran in Kyiv on October 19.

KYIV -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has reiterated Washington's "unwavering" support for Ukraine's territorial integrity during a visit to Kyiv as Russia continues to be an "obstacle" to the peaceful resolution of the deadly conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Austin made the comments on October 19 on the second leg of his three-nation tour to the Black Sea region aimed at underlining the White House's support for allies and partner states in the face of what he called Russia's “aggression.”

The visit comes amid continued fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists in a conflict that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.

The war in eastern Ukraine erupted after Moscow's annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 -- a move condemned by the international community.

"Russia started this war and Russia is the obstacle to a peaceful resolution," Austin said at a joint press conference with Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran, adding: "We will continue to do everything we can to support Ukraine's efforts to develop a capability to defend itself and protect its sovereign territory."

Asked about Moscow's fierce objections to Ukraine's entry into NATO, Austin said "no third country has a veto over NATO's membership decisions."

Ukraine “has a right to decide its own future foreign policy and we expect that they will be able to do that without any outside interference," he added.

Taran said that Kyiv expects the United States will "continue to support our independence, our territorial integrity, and will prevent Russia from further aggression with all possible means."

Earlier in the day, Austin said he and Taran discussed "how we plan to implement the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Defense Framework" signed when the defense minister and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy traveled to Washington less than two months ago.

The Biden administration also pledged to provide Ukraine with an additional $60 million in military aid, which would bring the total U.S. aid for this year alone to more than $400 million.

Austin's visit aims at underlining Washington's support of Kyiv in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and will also serve as "an opportunity to discuss Ukraine’s progress with the implementation of defense and defense industry reforms needed to advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations," according to the Pentagon.

We are encouraging their defense reforms to enable their resilience in the face of this Russian aggression," a senior U.S. defense official said, according to AFP.

"We need to enhance Ukraine's civilian control of the military," the official also said.

On October 18 in Tbilisi, Austin signed a preliminary agreement to continue U.S. backing for Georgia’s military.

The current support agreement started in May 2018 and is to expire at the end of the year.

Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russian troops have remained in Georgia's regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow opposes any effort to increase Georgia’s status within NATO.

After Ukraine, Austin will travel to Romania before heading to the NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels on October 21-22.

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