Mattis to visit Ukraine amid talk U.S. could provide lethal weaponry against Russia-backed rebels

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is set to travel to Ukraine, becoming the first U.S. defense secretary to visit the country since Robert Gates, the Pentagon announced Friday.

Mattis will meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak on Aug. 24, Ukraine’s independence day.

“During these engagements, the secretary will reassure our Ukrainian partners that the U.S. remains firmly committed to the goal of restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as strengthening the strategic defense partnership between our two countries,” the Defense Department said.

Mattis’ trip comes as the United States is mulling giving Ukraine lethal weapons after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its ongoing incursion into Ukraine’s eastern border regions.

The U.S. has given Ukraine’s military non-lethal supplies, including night-vision goggles, uniforms and surveillance equipment such as Raven RQ-11B Analog mini-drones.

But U.S. officials worry — with seemingly endless breakouts of hostilities between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine’s national guard — that the conflict will prolong without expanded support.


Analysis: This is another clear indication that the Trump administration not only was not assisted by the Russians in “stealing the election” in November but that his administration is serious about confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine. Arming the Ukrainian military would not come without diplomatic consequences, at least, and no small amount of posturing by the Kremlin.

Then again, Russia has been arming pro-Kremlin rebels in Ukraine, so the Trump administration may see its effort as just tit-for-tat. But it has become obvious that without some kind of direct lethal assistance the Ukrainians are 

It’s a move that’s overdue, actually. It has become obvious that without some kind of direct lethal assistance the Ukrainians are not capable of recapturing the ground they’ve lost, that’s one thing. For another, arming Ukraine would send a strong signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Trump administration is taking a different tact. Sending the defense secretary puts emphasis on the importance the White House places not just on Ukraine but on stunting Russian influence. 

In fact, changes in diplomatic and foreign policy regarding Ukraine by the Trump administration were foreshadowed in June, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a congressional hearing Trump did not want to be “handcuffed” by the Minsk Agreement, a deal brokered by France and Germany and signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2015. “My caution is I wouldn’t want to have ourselves handcuffed to Minsk if it turns out the parties decide to settle this through another, a different, agreement,” he said.

Whether it’s Russia, China, North Korea, or the Middle East, the Trump national security team appears to be working to reassert U.S. power and influence in a world from which many, including allies, believed Washington retreated during the Obama years. 


Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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