KYIV, Ukraine — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Ukraine on Tuesday, underlining Washington's support for the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity amid a tense standoff with Russia.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed the U.S. as the country's “chief partner in security and defense” during a meeting with Austin.
Austin emphasized that the U.S. and its allies remain committed to supporting Ukraine’s right to decide its own future foreign policy.
“U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering,” Austin said. "So we again call on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea, to stop perpetuating the war in eastern Ukraine, to end its destabilizing activities in the Black Sea and along Ukraine’s borders, and to halt its persistent cyberattacks and other malign activities against the United States and our allies and partners.”
Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 following the ouster of the country's Moscow-leaning president. Moscow also has thrown its weight behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that erupted weeks after the annexation of Crimea and has killed more than 14,000.
The annexation of Crimea and Russia's support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine has driven Moscow-West relations to post-Cold War lows.
The tensions rose once again earlier this year when Russia increased troop numbers near its borders with Ukraine, including in Crimea, fueling international concerns.
The Kremlin has described Ukraine's bid for prospective membership in NATO as a red line and a major threat to its security.
Speaking after his talks in Kyiv on Tuesday, Austin underlined that “no third country has a veto over NATO’s membership decisions.”
“Ukraine, as you have heard me saying earlier, has the right to decide its own future foreign policy and we expect they will be able to do that without any outside interference,” he said. "And again, we continue to work together with our partner to make sure that right things are at place, to ensure that Ukraine can defend itself and protect its territories.”