President Donald Trump is being pressed by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) to send defensive weapons to Ukrainian forces fighting pro-Russian separatists, following a spike in violence in Ukraine's east.
McCain wrote a letter to Trump on Wednesday, urging the new president to provide lethal defensive aid to Ukraine and asserting that Russia and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine are "testing" the new administration by launching new attacks.
Recent Stories in National Security
"In the first of what will be many tests for your new administration, Russia and its proxy forces launched attacks against Ukrainian forces this week," McCain wrote in the letter, which was released by his office on Thursday. "That this surge of attacks began the day after he talked with you by phone is a clear indication that Vladimir Putin is moving quickly to test you as commander-in-chief. America's response will have lasting consequences."
Ukraine's military said on Monday that seven soldiers had been killed and nine wounded over two days of fighting, which began on Sunday when pro-Russian rebels attacked government posts in the town of Avdiivka. The U.S. State Department and U.N. National Security Council expressed concern about the uptick in violence this week, urging both sides to abide by a ceasefire.
"Putin's violent campaign to destabilize and dismember the sovereign nation of Ukraine will not stop unless and until he meets a strong and determined response," McCain wrote in the letter. "Therefore, in light of the latest Russian attacks and the prospect of future aggression against Ukraine, I urge you to exercise the authority given to you by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 to provide defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine to defend its territory against further violations by Russia and its separatist proxies."
Former President Obama was pressed by lawmakers on both sides to arm Ukraine with defensive weapons to no avail. The conflict in eastern Ukraine has persisted for nearly three years since Russia first annexed the Crimean Peninsula in early 2014.
McCain also urged Trump to keep sanctions on Russia for its involvement in the conflict in Ukraine and to expand them to punish Moscow for its meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Ahead of Trump's phone call with the Russian president over the weekend, a White House aide indicated lifting sanctions on Russia would be up for discussion, though the two ultimately did not broach the topic.
"So long as Russia continues to occupy Crimea and destabilize Ukraine, I implore you to maintain current sanctions against Russia," McCain wrote. "And based on Russia's attempted interference in our elections, I urge you to expand current sanctions against Russia."
On Thursday, the Trump administration altered sanctions on Russia to allow American companies to do limited business with the FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence agency. The White House described the change as routine, and the U.S. has made similar moves in the past.
Nikki Haley, Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, firmly condemned Russia for its intervention in Ukraine during a speech Thursday night and said that sanctions would remain in place until Moscow vacates Crimea.
Trump has indicated that he would like to cultivate warmer relations with Russia, prompting criticism from some in his own party.