KYIV – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has arrived in Ukraine on the second leg of his three-nation tour to the Black Sea region aimed at underlining Washington's support for allies and partner states in the face of Russia's “aggression.”
“I'm here to reaffirm our unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations -- and to express our commitment to build Ukraine’s capacity to deter further Russian aggression,” Austin tweeted after landing in Kyiv on October 19 following a visit to Georgia.
During his stop in Ukraine, Austin is set to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Defense Minister Andriy Taran for talks aimed at underlining Washington's support of Kyiv in its conflict with Russia-backed separatists that has claimed more than 13,200 lives since April 2014.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine erupted after Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula -- a move condemned by the international community.
But Austin’s trip will also serve as “an opportunity to discuss Ukraine’s progress with the implementation of defense and defense industry reforms needed to advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” according to the Pentagon.
"We are encouraging their defense reforms to enable their resilience in the face of this Russian aggression," a senior U.S. defense official said, according to AFP.
"We need to enhance Ukraine's civilian control of the military," the official also said.
Ukraine, along with Georgia, seeks membership in NATO, which Moscow fiercely opposes.
Austin’s visit comes less than two months after both Zelenskiy and Taran traveled to Washington to meet U.S. President Joe Biden.
During the visit, the two sides finalized a Strategic Defense Framework that enhances defense partnership between the two countries’ defense ministries.
The Biden administration also pledged to provide Ukraine with an additional $60 million in military aid, which would bring the total U.S. aid for this year alone to more than $400 million.
On October 18 in Tbilisi, Austin signed a preliminary agreement to continue U.S. backing for Georgia’s military.
The current support agreement started in May 2018 and is to expire at the end of the year.
Russia and Georgia fought a brief war in 2008 and Russian troops have remained in Georgia's regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow opposes any effort to increase Georgia’s status within NATO.
After Ukraine, Austin will travel to Romania before heading to the NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels on October 21-22.