KYIV -- Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak has urged U.S. President Donald Trump to continue providing his crisis-stricken country with political and military assistance, urging Trump to continue sanctions against Russia to deter "further escalation" of the war in eastern Ukraine by the Kremlin.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL on January 21, a day after Trump's inauguration, Poltorak said it is "very important for Ukraine to have the political backing of the United States" and for Trump to "keep sanctions imposed against Russia in place, as this is one of the major aspects that is deterring any further escalation on the part of President [Vladimir] Putin."
Poltorak said lifting sanctions would send a dangerous signal to Russia and other countries that violate international law -- possibly bringing "chaos to the world" -- because it suggests they will likely face minimal consequences for future illegalities.
He suggested that Russia would be enticed to seize more Ukrainian territory or even invade a NATO-member country.
Trump, who has spoken admiringly of Putin, told The Wall Street Journal recently that he plans to keep the sanctions in place "at least a period of time," but suggested he would consider lifting them if Russia helps the United States fight terrorists.
The Obama administration first imposed sanctions against Russia after it invaded and illegally annexed Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014.
Obama hit Moscow with more sanctions in January in response to Russia's alleged hacking during the U.S. election.
"If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody's doing some really great things?” Trump told The Wall Street Journal.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 20, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he remains "hopeful to continue fruitful Ukraine-USA cooperation and expect Transatlantic unity."
Eighteen countries have provided Ukraine with military-related assistance.
Poltorak said most foreign assistance has come from the United States, Britain, Canada, and Lithuania in the form of military training and military equipment.
Washington's assistance has included more than $1.3 billion in assistance, including the cost of training and equipment, since 2014.
Only Lithuania has provided Ukraine with small arms and ammunition, Poltorak said.
While it remains to be seen whether Trump will continue supporting Ukraine, other allies have promised their continued support.
Britain’s Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said in Kyiv on January 20 that Britain "stands firm" with Ukraine and would continue training its military.
More than 9,750 people have been killed in Ukraine’s fight against Russia-backed separatists in the country's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, according to the United Nations.
Russia denies supporting the separatists with money, weapons, and soldiers despite an overwhelming amount of evidence.
U.S. Assistance 'Critical'
A peace deal meant to end the conflict, known as the Minsk accord, has been violated on an almost daily basis since a second version of it was agreed in February 2015.
Security monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) documented more than 300,000 cease-fire violations in 2016, Principal Deputy Chief Monitor Alexander Hug told RFE/RL last week.
Poltorak told RFE/RL the only way to end the conflict is through political and diplomatic means, "but these means are only possible if [Ukraine] will have a powerful army."
He said significant progress has been made since early 2014 in modernizing Ukraine's 250,000 -strong armed forces.
The country had just 5,000 to 6,000 combat-ready troops when the conflict broke out in 2014.
Ukraine also has been producing new tanks and refurbishing old ones, as well as producing its own unmanned fighting vehicles and aerial drones.
Still, Poltorak said, U.S. assistance – especially assistance with troop training – was critical for Ukraine.
"Unfortunately, we cannot influence whatever decisions [Trump] might take or not take" in regard to U.S. assistance for Ukraine, Poltorak said.
Regardless, Poltorak said, "we will protect our own country to the very end."
"What I can be sure of is that Putin and his forces won’t have an easy walk around the territory of Ukraine," Poltorak concluded.