Image: Ukraine Crisis
WASHINGTON — Ukraine will soon have more lethal American-made weapons to help it fight Russian-backed separatists.
U.S. officials said Friday that the Trump administration approved a plan to provide lethal weapons to Kiev, according to the Associated Press.
The State Department, responsible for overseeing foreign military sales, confirmed to NBC News that it would provide Ukraine with "enhanced defensive capabilities" but would not specify further.
Ukrainian marines prepare to train in urban warfare techniques on the second day of the 'Rapid Trident' bilateral military exercises between the United States and Ukraine that include troops from a variety of NATO and non-NATO countries on September 16, 2014 near Yavorov, Ukraine. Sean Gallup / Getty Images file
The move is long-awaited and deepens America’s involvement in the military conflict, potentially further straining U.S. relations with Russia.
According to AP sources the new arms include American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles that Ukraine has long sought to boost its defenses against Russian-backed separatists, who have rolled through eastern Ukraine in tanks since 2014. The violence is believed to have killed more than 10,000 people.
Previously, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with support equipment and training, and has let private companies sell some small arms like rifles.
A senior Russian diplomat criticized the move Saturday saying it would fuel the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The decision "raises the danger of derailing the process of peaceful settlement in Ukraine,” Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told the state RIA Novosti news agency.
A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany has helped reduce the scale of fighting in eastern Ukraine, but clashes have continued and the agreement’s provisions for political settlement have stalled.
The move is likely to become another sore point between Washington and Moscow, as President Donald Trump contends with ongoing questions about whether he’s too hesitant to confront the Kremlin. Ukraine accuses Russia of sending the tanks, and the U.S. says Moscow is arming, training and fighting alongside the separatists.
Trump had been considering the plan for some time after the State Department and the Pentagon signed off on it earlier this year. President Barack Obama also considered sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, but left office without doing so.
In a statement late Friday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the “enhanced defensive capabilities” would help Ukraine build its military long-term, defend its sovereignty and “deter further aggression.”
“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,” Nauert said.
Although the portable Javelin anti-tank missiles can kill, proponents for granting them to Ukraine have long argued they are considered “defensive” because the Ukrainians would use them to defend their territory and deter the Russians, not to attack a foreign country or seize new territory.
CONTRIBUTOR SAPHORA SMITH