Ukrainian President Volodysmyr Zelensky (L) welcomes U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (R) during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. Photo by Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/EPA-EFE/
Oct. 19 (UPI) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Ukraine continues to have U.S. support against Russian aggression and is free to decide its own foreign policy during a visit to Kyiv Tuesday.
Austin met with Ukrainian Minister of Defense Andrii Taran and later with President Volodymyr Zelensky, emphasizing to both that Ukraine's strategic defense partnership with the United States and NATO remains strong, the Pentagon said.
Austin issued the assurances as Russian troops continue to occupy the strategic Crimean peninsula and Moscow backs separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine in a deadly insurgency that has claimed 14,000 lives since 2014.
The U.S. defense chief also voiced support for Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO over Russian objections and decried the Kremlin's military buildup of some 100,000 troops along Ukraine's borders earlier this year.
Following widespread condemnation, Russia ended what it described as military exercises in May.
"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 told reporters during a joint press conference with Taran.
"We will continue to do everything we can to support Ukraine's efforts to develop the capability to defend itself," he added.
When asked about Ukraine's efforts to join NATO, Austin replied that no third nation has "a veto" over its aspirations. Ukraine, he said, "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's visit in Ukraine was the second stop on a three-nation tour of Black Sea regional nations on the front lines with Russia. On Monday he visited Georgia, where he similarly voiced support and renewed aid for the country's efforts to counter Russian occupiers.
He will also visit Romania before attending the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels later this week.