Pentagon Head's Rare Visit to Ukraine, Explained
23 August, 2017

United States Secretary of Defence James Mattis is paying an extremely rare visit to Ukraine to celebrate the country’s Independence Day on August 24.

“I'm going there to commemorate Ukraine's Independence Day, and just to make certain that, you know, that they know we're aware of the values and what they're trying to put together coming out of the history they've had in the past,” Mattis said. “It's not easy making a democracy. It's not easy making a sovereign state, especially right now with the way Russia has been violating territorial integrity.”

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The Pentagon head will meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Defense Minister, Stepan Poltorak. He will also attend the military parade honoring Ukraine’s independence with the goal of “strengthening of the defense-strategic partnership between the two countries,” the US Embassy said in a statement.

Hromadske asked analysts to assess the significance of the visit, the possibility that it could help move efforts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine’s east forward, and the effect this might have on relations between Washington and Moscow.

Photo credit: EPA

Steven Pifer, nonresident senior fellow in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative:

The purpose of Secretary Mattis's visit to Kyiv is to demonstrate continued US support for Ukraine, including support in the conflict with Russia. The visit also offers the Secretary the opportunity to learn directly about the situation in Ukraine; he is someone who likes to get first-hand information.

Can today's meeting between Kurt Volker and Vladislav Surkov somehow influence the Mattis visit?

The August 21 meeting between Kurt Volker and Vladislav Surkov should be viewed as the first step in a process. Whether that process produces new momentum for implementation of the Minsk agreements or toward some other settlement of the Ukraine-Russia conflict remains to be seen. So, it likely will not have much impact on Secretary Mattis's agenda, though I certainly would expect that Ambassador Volker will be sharing a read-out with Ukrainian officials of his discussions with Surkov.

How much influence does Secretary Mattis have over Trump? Could he now have greater influence over Trump now Bannon has left the administration?

Secretary Mattis is serious, sober-minded and very experienced. I believe he has significant influence with President Trump, though, as we have seen, the President can go off on his own tangents at times. Mr. Bannon's departure from the White House should be a good thing for those who are trying to shape a coherent and sensible U.S. foreign policy.

Is there a possibility that, after this meeting, they will discuss giving Ukraine lethal weapons, that the US will give Ukraine lethal weapons? If so, how would this influence the already tense relations with Russia?

There appears to be wide support among U.S. government officials, both at the State and Defense Departments, for providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine. But that remains a decision for President Trump. As far as I understand, that decision had not been made as of last week. I personally support providing lethal assistance to the Ukrainian military; the Russians would not like it, but it is a matter of helping a sovereign state defend itself.

Hannah Thoburn, Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute:

I do see Secretary Mattis’ choice to visit Ukraine as an interesting and important one. It comes only 6 weeks after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson first visited Ukraine, and Ambassador Kurt Volker was named to the position of U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Together, I take this to indicate that we are finally seeing the emergence of a Ukraine policy under President Trump, and that the United States intends to stay very engaged with Ukraine, helping the country in its reform and transition, and remains an interested party in bringing the conflict in Donbas to an end.

Since the beginning of fighting with Russia in 2014, the Independence Day parade has taken on increased military significance. The fact that Mattis has chosen to attend this parade alongside the Defense Ministers of several other countries – most of which are members of NATO – and that US and NATO troops will take part in the parade alongside Ukrainian troops is a strong show of support from the United States.

How much influence does Secretary Mattis have over Trump? Could he now have greater influence over Trump now Bannon has left the administration?

Quantifying any one person’s influence over another is a nearly impossible task. But is it quite clear that President Trump highly respects Secretary Mattis and trusts him and the other generals in the Pentagon to make smart decisions about the use of American military power.

Is there a possibility that, after this meeting, they will discuss giving Ukraine lethal weapons, in that the US will give Ukraine lethal weapons? If so, how would this influence the already tense relations with Russia?

Certainly, the possibility that the US will give Ukraine lethal weaponry exists and will continue to exist, but that will not be a decision taken lightly. U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker has already seemed to express his support for the idea of giving Ukraine such weapons, and in the past the Defense and State Departments have also supported the idea, but any decision will need to be made in consideration of the current status in Ukraine, recognizing that much has changed in the past three years.

The extent to which any US decision to arm Ukraine will further harm US-Russian relations will likely depend on the kind of weaponry and its potential uses. The timing of such a decision will also be a very important factor. Of course, if that decision is made, the US will want to minimize the damage that can be done to an already poor US-Russian relationship while emphasizing to Russia that its actions on the territory of Ukraine are illegal and will not be tolerated. That is a very fine and difficult line to walk.

Nora Vanaga, researcher from the Center for Security and Strategic Research at the National Defense Academy of Latvia:

There have already been numerous times, after the election of Trump, showing that US actually cares and political solidarity, that they want, I mean they support the fight against the separatists and [support] Ukrainian territorial integrity. But the other issue – and of course we do not know much detail – but certainly the lethal weapons supply will be discussed, it’s pushed by the State Department. In recent months, actually, this discussion has been ongoing. And if we look at the relationships between the US and Russia, with a negative, I would say, very tense relationships, there is actually a good chance that these kind of weapons, this discussion at least about supplying lethal weapons, could be encouraged and it would come up with some results. But then again I think everyone, the risky part is: so what will be the Russian response and what would then be the situation actually on the ground in the separatist controlled regions?

But having these lethal weapons, that would be a total game changer because that means that the Ukrainian side could make offensive steps, and then it’s the question how much Russia would be interested to get involved. And it seems that, following the same logic, that these relationships are very tense and perhaps the Russians would like some resistance and perhaps for a shorter period there will be an escalation so it’s a risky game.

Discussions [are] really going that direction that there could be a realistic actually approach that they would deliver these lethal weapons, but we will see.

And what do you think, could US policy towards Ukraine change now Trump’s advisor has left the administration, and could Secretary Mattis have greater influence on Trump’s foreign policy? Because [Steve] Bannon wasn’t among the friends of Ukraine, unlike Mattis.

Yeah, well Secretary Mattis is one of the common sense voices in the administration, of course there are very competent [people in the] administration as such, but the unpredictability of Mr. Trump’s leadership is the problem. But this is an old-school, very predictable and pragmatic [person], I would say, like a politician but with a military background. And what he is saying, he means it. So there are actually no indications like after Trump’s election and what we see now, the support has become less for Ukraine. As you know that the US is basically the only and the biggest contributor to Ukraine, when it comes to economy, political reforms, corruption for the border guards and military, so all these efforts are actually taking place after Trump election. It’s only a debate about these lethal weapons.

I think Mattis has a big authority in the administration because he understands the State Department and especially the Pentagon, so he has rational and pragmatic support behind him. So, at the end of the day, it’s up to Trump, if he listens to him, to what he says or he does not listen, and this is more a different context totally, perhaps not related to a rational argument, but to an absolutely different agenda.

/Text by Liuda Kornievich, Galya Rudik, Matthew Kupfer