Trump approves sale of new arms to Ukraine amid escalated fighting

Molly Riley/Pool/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — President Donald Trump has approved the sale of more lethal arms to Ukraine as the country fights off Russian-backed fighters in its east — despite the president’s recent overtures for cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But while the latest sale is a new gift to the Ukrainian government, Trump still has not made a decision on whether to provide a more powerful lethal-aid package that includes anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles — a proposal recommended by his National Security Council and awaiting his approval for months now.

The newest sale consists of small arms and light weapons sold by American manufacturers to the Ukrainian military, not a direct sale or exchange from the U.S. government, according to the State Department.

“The U.S. government is not selling the Ukrainian government these weapons. Under the previous two administrations, the U.S. government has approved export licenses to Ukraine, so this is nothing new,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement to ABC News.

The sale consists of sniper rifles, ammunition and other associated parts and materials, and is estimated to be worth $41.5 million, according to two U.S. congressional sources.

This is not the first sale permitted under the Trump administration, and such sales also occurred under presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. One congressional aide with knowledge of the new proposal called it a “continuation of Obama-era policy,” adding, “We aren’t so surprised.”

As Nauert said in her statement, “This is nothing new.”

Earlier this year, the Trump administration approved the sale of shoulder-fired rocket launchers by AirTronic, a U.S. manufacturer in Texas, to Ukraine, according to the company’s chief operating officer. Richard Vandiver told Voice of America that his firm has been selling the weapons since last year, and “we are continuing deliveries up until now.”

But the “real get” for Ukraine would be the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, as the congressional aide put it.

“What we are awaiting and have called for is the provision of lethal defense weapons that are more advanced — a larger package that is under consideration right now, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles,” a Ukrainian official told ABC News. “We are expecting this decision and would welcome it.”

That proposal has been sitting on Trump’s desk waiting for his approval for months, after it was recommended by his National Security Council, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis. It’s unclear when Trump intends to make a decision.

“The United States has not provided lethal defensive equipment to Ukraine, nor have we ruled out doing so,” Nauert said in her statement — a line several administration officials have had for months as the question continually arises.

Such a sale would mark an escalation in American support for Ukraine as it battles Russian-backed and -led fighters in the country’s east. The conflict there has been frozen in terms of the battle lines for nearly four years, but the war is anything but cold.

In the last few days, monitoring groups from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have recorded more than 16,000 ceasefire violations, and as many as eight Ukrainian soldiers have been killed this week.

The death toll stands at over 10,000 people since fighting began in 2014, according to a December report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“Russia and its proxies are the source of violence in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian government continues to perpetuate an active conflict and humanitarian crisis through its leadership and supply of military forces on the ground, as well as its direct control over proxy authorities,” Nauert said Tuesday at the department’s briefing. “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 U.N. peacekeeping mission.”

But while the U.S. searches for a peaceful solution to the violence, including by possibly providing these lethal defensive arms, Russia could see that move in particular as an act of destabilization and violence — and possibly retaliate.

It would certainly damage relations between the two countries, even as Trump has called for more cooperation and spoken with Putin twice in the last week — once to discuss the CIA’s intelligence sharing with Russia that thwarted a terror attack in St. Petersburg.

“Both leaders agreed that this serves as an example of the positive things that can occur when our countries work together,” the White House said in a statement Sunday after the conversation.

But the conflict in Ukraine stands in the way of greater cooperation, Tillerson has said repeatedly.

“We must address Ukraine. It stands as the single most difficult obstacle to us renormalizing the relationship with Russia, which we badly would like to do,” he told reporters in Vienna on Dec. 7.

While the new sale revealed Wednesday was short of the lethal defensive weapons expected, it still garnered praise from Congress’s most vocal Russia hawks.

“I’m pleased the administration approved the sale of defensive lethal arms to Ukraine,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. He added that the decision “reflects our country’s longstanding commitment to Ukraine in the face of ongoing Russian aggression.”

“I welcome reports the administration has taken the long-overdue step of approving the sale of lethal defensive weapons to help the Ukrainian people defend themselves from Russian aggression,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted. In an accompanying statement, he said the move “must only be a first step. I urge the president to authorize additional sales of defensive lethal weapons, including anti-tank munitions.”

McCain has long called for such arms, vociferously criticizing the Obama administration for not doing so.

The proposal was sent to Capitol Hill on Dec. 13, and members have 30 days to voice objections; otherwise the sale goes through, and the State Department grants the licenses to the American manufacturers. It is expected to pass through congressional review without problem.

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