With tensions on the rise between the United States and Russia, Washington has been amping up its support for Ukraine, and it could go even further. After an Aug. 24 visit to Kiev, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis announced in a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that the United States is "actively reviewing" whether it will provide Ukraine with lethal weapons. Mattis also emphasized that Washington "stands with Ukraine" and is committed to "building the capacity" of the country's armed forces.
This show of solidarity is in line with the United States' increasing support for Ukraine amid Washington's broader standoff with Moscow. The United States recently expanded sanctions against Russia, and both have implemented measures expelling the other's diplomatic personnel and shutting down the other's compounds. Talk about potentially aiding Kiev with lethal weapons has been circulating in Washington for months now; reports indicate that both the Pentagon and the State Department have endorsed the provision, while Trump administration officials such as Mattis and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker are also believed to support the measure.
However, the final decision will come down to U.S. President Donald Trump, and his advocacy for improved ties with Russia make it seem unlikely that he will sign off on the measure. (Even former President Barack Obama refrained from providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, anticipating that it would lead to a serious Russian response.) Still, the U.S. Congress has constrained Trump's ability to influence policy decisions about Russia, and he recently signed off on a widely supported bill expanding sanctions against Russia, despite his position against it.
Mattis said that his Ukraine visit was in part to get "better informed" about Ukraine's defense needs so he could "go back and advocate" them to Trump. These comments echo those made by Volker after his recent visit to the frontlines of the Donbas conflict, and together they seem to indicate the growing potential that the United States may indeed provide lethal weapons — such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, for example — to Ukraine.
If that happens, Russia can be expected to respond quickly, perhaps by escalating the conflict in Eastern Ukraine — possibly to include further rebel land grabs in contested hotspots like Avdiivka — or by playing a spoiler role in North Korea or Syria. Moreover, Russia could intensify its own military buildup along the NATO periphery and provide weapons to groups like the Taliban that have a vested interest in challenging the United States. Either way, hostility between the United States and Russia doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.