The Trump administration has approved a plan to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles, US officials say, as Kiev battles Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.
The new arms include the American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles that Ukraine has long sought to boost its defences against tanks that have rolled through eastern Ukraine during violence that has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014.
The officials describing the plan were not authorised to discuss it publicly and demanded anonymity.
The State Department, responsible for overseeing foreign military sales, would not confirm that anti-tank missiles or other lethal weapons would be sent.
But in a statement, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US had decided to provide “enhanced defensive capabilities” to help Ukraine build its military long-term, defend its sovereignty and “deter further aggression”.
“US 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.
Previously, the US has provided Ukraine with support equipment and training, and has let private companies sell some small arms like rifles.
Move may escalate US-Russia tensions
The latest move is likely to escalate tensions between the United States and Russia, as President Donald Trump contends with ongoing questions about whether he’s too hesitant to confront the Kremlin.
Ukraine accuses Russia of sending the tanks, and the US says Moscow is arming, training and fighting alongside the separatists.
Mr Trump had been considering the plan for some time after the State Department and the Pentagon signed off earlier this year. Former president Barack Obama also considered sending lethal weapons to Ukraine.
The White House’s National Security Council declined to comment.
Although the portable Javelin anti-tank missiles can kill, proponents for granting them to Ukraine have long argued they are considered “defensive” because the Ukrainians would use them to defend their territory and deter the Russians, not to attack a foreign country or seize new territory.
Under law, the State Department must tell Congress of planned foreign military sales, triggering a review period in which politicians can act to stop the sale.
It is unclear whether the administration have formally notified Congress, but politicians are unlikely to try to block it given that Democrats and Republicans alike have long called on the Government to take the step.
Republican senator John McCain welcomed the small arms sale earlier this week.
Senator McCain urged Mr Trump “to authorise additional sales of defensive lethal weapons, including anti-tank munitions”.
“And to fully utilise security assistance funds provided by the Congress to enable Ukraine to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.