Kiev, Ukraine – The Pentagon chief on Tuesday called on Moscow to stop prolonging the war in eastern Ukraine, his second stop in the Black Sea countries he said were threatened by Russian expansionism.
“We again call on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea and to stop perpetuating the war in eastern Ukraine, to end its destabilising activities in the Black Sea and along Ukraine’s borders,” US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a meeting with Ukrainian Defence Minister Andriy Taran.
“Russia started this war and Russia is the obstacle to a peaceful resolution,” he added.
Austin was in Kiev for discussions on advancing the two countries’ defence cooperation, building on the Strategic Defence Framework, a blueprint for bilateral defence and policy cooperation announced in Washington at the beginning of September.
Austin said that his meetings with Taran and President Volodymyr Zelensky, for the second time in less than two months, were important for building cooperation among Black Sea countries, including Georgia and Romania, to confront increased Russian activity in the Black Sea.
Responding to European concerns that the United States is now focusing most of its security attention on China and the Indo-Pacific region, Austin stressed: “This region remains critical to us.”
“I like the minister,” he added to journalists. “That’s why I came back to see him so soon.”
Ukraine has ‘no doubts’
Taran said Ukraine retains confidence in the United States despite the recent US abandonment of Afghanistan after a 20-year war against the Taliban.
“We have no doubt in support from our strategic partner,” he said.
“The United States understands the importance of Ukraine’s struggle for its independence, for deterring Russian aggression.”
More than 13,000 people have been killed since the separatist insurgency broke out in the eastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions in April, 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Zelensky during his meeting with Austin later on Tuesday hailed Washington’s support, saying that “the United States remains Ukraine’s main security and defence partner”.
“Thank you and President Biden for your continued support of Ukraine, our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Zelensky’s office quoted him as saying in a statement.
But Ukraine’s desire to graduate from a strategic partner in NATO to full member was not answered by the Pentagon defence chief.
Washington continues to fall in line with Germany and France, who see admitting Ukraine to the Atlantic alliance as a high risk given Moscow’s adamant opposition to it.
Austin visited Georgia on Monday, and is due in Romania Wednesday, with the same message of solidarity and offers of continuing defence support in the face of challenges from Russia.
As well as providing weapons such as anti-tank missiles to Ukraine’s fight against Russia-allied separatists in the east, the Pentagon has provided a number of patrol boats to Ukraine’s Black Sea navy.
Taran said the two sides had discussed “countering Russia’s aggressive policy, which poses a threat to shipping, economic activity and provokes new conflicts” in the Black Sea.