U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says no third country has a veto on Ukraine's aspirations to join the NATO military alliance.
“Ukraine…has a right to decide its own future foreign policy, and we expect that they will be able to do that without any outside interference," Austin said during a visit to Kyiv on Tuesday, when asked about Russian objections to Ukraine's entry into NATO.
Tensions have risen between Russia and the U.S.-led alliance, with Moscow announcing on Monday it is suspending its permanent mission to NATO in response to the alliance's expulsion of eight Russians diplomats earlier this month.
Austin also called Russia an “obstacle” to any peaceful resolution to the war raging in Ukraine’s east.
"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," Austin said.
“We will continue to do everything we can to support Ukraine's efforts to develop the capability to defend itself," he added.
Earlier this year, Russia massed the largest concentration of its troops near the Ukrainian border since it annexed Crimea in 2014. The troops pulled back after conducting exercises near Ukraine’s border.
Austin's visit to Ukraine is his second stop in Europe this week. He visited Georgia on Monday.
Bradley Bowman, a defense expert with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called the stops in Georgia and Ukraine “an important and positive signal.”
“They're important partners, and they’re partners that are literally, not metaphorically, literally on the front line against Russian aggression and invasion and continued occupation,” Bowman told VOA.
Russia still occupies about one-fifth of Georgia.
During his press conference Tuesday with his Ukrainian counterpart, Austin also urged Moscow to stop its "persistent cyberattacks and other malign activities" against the United States and its partners.
A White House official said last week Russia had taken "some steps" against ransomware groups operating from the country after President Joe Biden urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to tackle the groups in June.
Russian hackers were accused of being behind last year's massive breach of several U.S. federal agencies through exploiting SolarWinds software and a string of ransomware attacks on U.S. infrastructure and businesses, including the Colonial Pipeline attack in May.
On Wednesday, Austin plans to visit Romania ahead of his participation at a NATO defense ministerial in Brussels.