The United States says it will provide Ukraine with "enhanced defensive capabilities" to help it "deter further aggression," a move that deepens U.S. involvement and prompted an angry rebuke from the Kremlin as Kyiv battles Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said late on December 22 that the assistance was intended to help Ukraine, which has long sought to boost its capabilities to "defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to deter further aggression."
Russia swiftly denounced the decision, accusing the United States of fueling war instead of acting as a mediator.
"Today the United States is clearly pushing [the Ukrainian authorities] towards new bloodshed," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a statement on December 23.
"American weapons can lead to new victims in our neighbor," he said, adding that Washington had "crossed a line."
"I am grateful for the leadership of President Donald Trump, clear position of all our American friends, and for strong bipartisan support of Ukraine," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Facebook in English.
"American weapons in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers are not for offensive [purposes], but for stronger rebuff of the aggressor, protection of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, as well as for effective self-defense," he added.
"It is also a trans-Atlantic vaccination against the Russian virus of aggression."
Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, Valeriy Chaly, hailed the decision as a move that would help bring peace.
"Weakness encourages an aggressor," he said on Facebook. "Force helps deter him and push him toward peace."
Offensive Or Defensive?
The U.S. statement did not specify the type of weapons, but CNN and the Associated Press quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying they would include Javelin antitank missiles, which Ukraine has urged the United States to supply.
Nauert said only that "U.S. assistance is entirely defensive in nature, and as we have always said, Ukraine is a sovereign country and has a right to defend itself."
"The United States remains committed to the Minsk agreements as the way forward in eastern Ukraine," she said, adding that the State Department would not comment further on the situation "at this time."
Konstantin Kosachyov, a senior member of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, called the move a step toward war.
"Washington's recent decision, alas, once again is in favor of war, not peace," he wrote on Facebook.
Kosachyov added that the move "has an obvious, blatant, and even articulated political implication."
Ryabkov warned that the U.S. move could prompt a Russian response, saying that Moscow could not "remain indifferent."
"The American weapons can lead to more victims in the neighboring country, and we couldn't stay indifferent to that," he said.
Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the Federation Council, said in remarks carried by Russia's TASS news agency that Washington had made a "big mistake" that would "pull them into Ukraine's internal conflict."
"With lethal weapons supplies, the U.S. gives a clear signal to Kyiv that it will support a military option," Aleksei Pushkov, the head of the upper house's Information Committee, said on Twitter.
The announcement comes after the State Department on December 21 said it had approved an export license for Ukraine to buy certain types of light weapons and small arms from U.S. manufacturers.
That license covered weapons in categories such as semiautomatic and automatic firearms up to .50 caliber weapons, combat shotguns, silencers, military scopes, flash suppressors, and parts.
However, the State Department played down the significance of the licensing after that announcement.
"Under the previous two administrations, the U.S. government has approved export licenses to Ukraine, so this is nothing new," Nauert said on December 21.
Sales of this type generally would require approval from Congress. It was unclear whether the administration had formally notified Congress, but lawmakers are unlikely to try to block it as moves to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine have strong bipartisan support.
Cease-Fire In Tatters
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently warned that violence is up about 60 percent in Ukraine this year, and Kyiv has urged Washington to provide heavier weapons, such as the Javelin missiles, to strengthen its capabilities against the separatists.
In the face of the surge in violence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron issued a joint statement on December 23 saying there was no alternative to a peaceful settlement in eastern Ukraine and that Russian officers should return to the Joint Centre for Control and Coordination (JCCC).
On December 18, Russia pulled its officers from the JCCC, accusing the Ukrainian side of obstructing their work and limiting access to the front line.
"In the light of the volatile security situation, they ask the sides for immediate and verifiable steps to remedy this situation," Macron and Merkel's statement said.
"It is necessary to implement agreements on disengagement and the withdrawal of heavy weapons behind the agreed withdrawal lines, withdrawal of tanks, artillery and mortars to the agreed storage sites," the statement added.
The increase in support for Ukraine's military comes amid preliminary discussions on the possibility of sending United Nations peacekeepers to the region to improve security for Ukrainians, as well as for special monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who are on the ground in Ukraine.
U.S. media reported on December 22 that President Donald Trump was ready to authorize the sale of the missiles, although that was not referenced in the State Department statement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned against any U.S. move to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, saying it would fuel the conflict and could lead the separatists to expand their military operations.
Ukraine has been battling Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the eastern part of the country in a war that has killed more than 10,300 people since April 2014.
Several cease-fire deals have been announced as part of the so-called Minsk agreements -- one in September 2014 and another in February 2015 -- although they have met with little success on the ground.
Russia denies interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs, despite compelling evidence that Moscow has provided military, economic, and political support to the separatists.