WASHINGTON -- The United States says it has decided to provide Ukraine with “enhanced defensive capabilities” to help it "deter further aggression" as it battles Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said late on December 22 that the assistance is intended to help Ukraine “defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to 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,” she said in a statement.
“The United States remains committed to the Minsk Agreements as the way forward in eastern Ukraine,” she said, adding that the State Department would not comment further on the situation “at this time.”
The statement did not specify the type of weapons, but the Associated Press quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying they would include the Javelin antitank missiles that Ukraine has long sought, a move that would likely substantially ratchet up tensions with the Kremlin.
The announcement comes after the State Department on December 21 said it had approved an export license for Ukraine to buy certain types of light weapons and small arms from U.S. manufacturers.
That license covered weapons in categories such as semiautomatic and automatic firearms up to .50 caliber weapons, combat shotguns, silencers, military scopes, flash suppressors, and parts.
However, the State Department played down the significance of the licensing after that announcement.
"Under the previous two administrations, the U.S. government has approved export licenses to Ukraine, so this is nothing new," Nauert said on December 21.
Sales of this type generally would require approval from Congress, where moves to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine has strong bipartisan support.
Kyiv has urged Washington to provide heavier weapons, such as the Javelin missiles, to strengthen its capabilities against the separatists.
U.S. media reported on December 22 that President Donald Trump was ready to authorize the sale of the missiles, although that was not referenced in the State Department statement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned against any U.S. move to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, saying it would fuel the conflict and could lead the separatists to expand their military operations.
Ukraine has been battling Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the eastern part of the country in a war that has killed more than 10,300 people since April 2014.
Several cease-fire deals have been announced as part of the so-called Minsk Agreements -- one in September 2014 and another in February 2015 -- although they have met with little success on the ground.