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U.S. Defense Chief To Visit Ukraine Amid Ongoing Standoff With Russia


U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (right) meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on June 20.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will travel to Ukraine next week to meet with President Petro Poroshenko and Ukraine's defense chief, a visit Kyiv has said could involve the signing of new defense agreements.

The Pentagon said on August 18 that Mattis's visit will be the last leg of a three-country tour that will also include Jordan and NATO ally Turkey.

Officials said Mattis will leave for Jordan on August 21, arrive in Turkey on August 23, and conclude his trip with the stop in Ukraine on August 24.

In Kyiv, the Pentagon chief's talks with Poroshenko and Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak will likely center on the country's standoff with Russia, whose 2014 seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and backing of separatists in the east of the country have led to U.S. and EU sanctions targeting Moscow.

Russia denies backing the separatists despite substantial evidence of such support.

A Pentagon statement said Mattis will reassure Kyiv that the United States is "firmly committed to the goal of restoring Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

U.S. media reported on August 6 that the Pentagon had recommended sending a package of lethal defensive military aid to Ukraine worth about $50 million.

The weapons package would reportedly include Javelin shoulder-launched antitank missiles, which Kyiv has long sought to defend against Russian-made armored vehicles operating in rebel-held areas.

U.S. President Donald Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, had resisted calls in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere to send such weapons over fears that the move would invite escalation from Russia.

A Pentagon official would not confirm the reports but told NBC television that "we haven't ruled anything out."

In addition, agreements were announced during Poroshenko's June 20 visit to Washington to allow Kyiv to buy additional military equipment from the United States and play a role in manufacturing such equipment, although the details had not been finalized.

At the time, Poroshenko said Mattis would likely visit Ukraine in the coming months to formally sign the agreements.

The new U.S. special envoy for efforts to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Kurt Volker, told Current Time TV last month that the Trump administration was considering sending Kyiv weapons to help government forces defend themselves against the Russia-backed separatists.

Volker told the Russian-language network, which is run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America, in a July 25 interview that he did not think arming Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons would "provoke Russia to do more than they are already doing."

Separately, Mattis told reporters the U.S. administration was near a decision on a new strategy for fighting the war in Afghanistan.

Mattis and his security team were scheduled to meet on August 18 at Camp David with Trump to discuss the 16-year-old war to drive the Taliban and other militants out of Afghanistan and stabilize the government in Kabul.

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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