KYIV, UKRAINE —
Two U.S. lawmakers say the time has come for the United States to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons to better defend itself against Moscow-backed separatists, saying that a "confrontational" Russian President Vladimir Putin shows no sign of easing the pressure on Kyiv.
In an interview in Kyiv on Wednesday, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from the Midwestern state of Illinois, told RFE/RL that the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have been fighting the separatists for nearly three years, has "reached a point now where we have to be honest."
"What [the Russians] continue to do in eastern Ukraine, in Donetsk, gives no indication they're backing off," Durbin said. "We have to give to Ukraine the tools and weapons they need to protect their own people."
Durbin -- who is the second-most-senior Democrat in the Senate and sits on the Senate Judiciary, Appropriations and Rules committees -- noted the reluctance of former President Barack Obama's administration to provide Kyiv with lethal aid for fear of escalating the conflict.
'Look at the reality'
The United States has provided nonlethal assistance, including military training. But now, Durbin said, "We have to look at the reality."
"Putin continues to be confrontational," he added.
Among other things, Durbin cited Putin's recent order formally accepting "passports" and identity documents issued by the separatists who control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine.
"That says to me he has no plans of leaving [Ukraine] soon," he said.
Russia denies involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine, despite what Kyiv and Western countries say is overwhelming evidence that Moscow whipped up separatist sentiment in 2014 and has sent substantial numbers of troops and weapons across the border to support separatist forces.
U.S. Representative Mike Quigley, also a Democrat from Illinois, who spoke to RFE/RL along with Durbin, said that lethal arms were necessary "because it is a new world and there's new technology out there, and [the Ukrainians] are competing against an advanced force."
Durbin and Quigley, each of whom stopped in Ukraine while on separate tours through Eastern Europe and the Baltics to voice support for the regions, said they were not satisfied with President Donald Trump's position on Ukraine.
Quigley described Trump's stance on Ukraine as "somewhat schizophrenic," adding that the president's position "depends who you are listening to and what you are watching."
Statements of support
Senior U.S. officials including Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have both recently delivered strong statements of support for Ukraine and called out Russia for its aggression here.
Trump has spoken admiringly of Putin and said he hopes badly strained relations with Moscow will improve, and suggested during the campaign that he would consider lifting sanctions Obama imposed on Russia over its interference in Ukraine.
Since his inauguration on January 20, he has said little about Ukraine beyond a tweet saying: "Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?"
Durbin said Trump's administration was delivering "two different messages."
"We have the tweets of the president in conflict with statements made by the secretary of defense, the vice president, the secretary of state, the ambassador to the United Nations," he said.
He added, "We have to have consistency of message so the world knows our values and what we're prepared to stand up for."
On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for Western states to toughen sanctions against Russia in response to Putin's order recognizing separatist-issued documents, which the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said was "incompatible" with the goals of the tenuous peace deal known as the Minsk agreements.
Durbin and Quigley said they would appeal to Congress, where they said there was bipartisan support for helping Ukraine, to do so.
Durbin praised Ukraine's fighting forces for their "extraordinary courage on the lines resisting this Russian invasion" and lauded the government in Kyiv, which he said was making progress on crucial reforms.
"There is still much work to be done," he said. "We hope they have equal commitments to stop the Russians in the east and to stop corruption in the rest of their nation."