The Trump administration has approved the first-ever U.S. commercial sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine — green-lighting a decision that the Obama administration refused to make.
The move, reported by the Washington Post, will surely be opposed by Moscow, which, through its proxy breakaway “republics” in the Donbass region, is locked in a low-intensity but bloody war with Ukraine, after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed the peninsula of Crimea.
The Obama administration had criticized the invasion, imposed sanctions on Russia, and provided “non-lethal” aid to Ukraine, such as blankets, meal packets, and vehicles, but declined to provide lethal aid out of fear for provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin, and giving him an excuse to escalate military activity in Ukraine.
Trump’s decision is a major reversal of that stance, although the administration is not selling Ukraine all the military equipment it has asked to be available, including anti-tank Javelin missiles.
Specifically, the State Department approved a commercial license authorizing the export of $41.5 million of those arms which will address a specific vulnerability of Ukrainian forces, according to the report. The license authorizes the export of Model M107A1 Sniper Systems, ammunition, and associated parts and accessories to Ukraine.
The move risks escalating tensions with Putin, whom Trump said during the campaign he wanted to get along with. It also risks a peace process underway, but that so far has not borne fruit. The decision to sell arms to Ukraine could risk blowing up that process — or prompt cooperation.
The move was reportedly supported by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. A senior Trump administration official said that Trump personally approved the decision, after being presented with a decision memo by Mattis and Tillerson, according to the Post.
It was also supported by Russia hawks in Congress, who had authorized the sale of these types of arms in 2014, but the Obama administration never acted upon it. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has been a vocal critic of Trump, praised the decision.
The administration notified the relevant congressional committees on December 13.
On Tuesday, the State Department Press Secretary Heather Nauert criticized Russia, calling on Moscow to put an end to the attacks in Eastern Ukraine, withdraw its forces and heavy weapons from Ukraine, and agree to a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Eastern Ukraine:
.@statedeptspox: The United States calls on #Russia to put an end to the attacks in eastern #Ukraine, withdraw its forces and heavy weapons from the sovereign territory of Ukraine, and agree to a robust @UNPeacekeeping mission. pic.twitter.com/V3tHVSfHar
— Department of State (@StateDept) December 19, 2017