Mattis: Moscow “Seeking to Redraw Borders by Force”

August 28, 2017

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis met with President Poroshenko in Kyiv and attended Ukraine’s Independence Day ceremonies on Thursday (Aug 24), saying in prepared remarks that Russia “is seeking to re-draw international borders by force”. Mattis, who also met separately with his Ukrainian counterpart Stepan Poltorak, said “have no doubt... the United States stands with Ukraine”, and emphasized that Washington will not formally accept Russia’s 2014 annexation of the province of Crimea. In terms of Poroshenko’s request to receive advanced US missile systems, Mattis did not offer any new information, saying only that he plans to consider the matter carefully and then make a recommendation to the US administration. The Mattis visit was the first by a US Defense Secretary to Ukraine in nearly 10 years, since Robert Gates came in late 2007.

We find it encouraging that Mattis was so direct in calling out Russia’s fundamental motivation to re-draw Ukraine’s borders in his Kyiv speech. Thus far, new US President Trump has remained completely disengaged on Ukraine, and Ukraine policy is therefore being laid out by other figures in the administration. The recent departure of Trump’s top White House advisor Stephen Bannon is probably positive for Kyiv, as Bannon viewed Moscow as a potential geopolitical ally. Still, the danger remains that Trump could at any moment decide to pursue a “grand bargain” with Russian President Putin in defiance of the views of his top national security officials. Despite many past Republican Party statements about the need to “arm Ukraine”, we see that this question remains on a slow track with the new administration, similar to the situation under President Obama. We suppose that the Trump administration is making a very public show of “thinking about it” in regard to supplying advanced US weaponry to Kyiv as a means of extracting some fresh concessions from Moscow.

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