An armed man stands guard in Luhansk, Ukraine, on November 22 as rebels control the city. The Trump administration has approved the sale of lethal defensive weapons to Kiev. Photo by Alexander Ermochenko/EPA-EFE
Dec. 21 (UPI) -- President Donald Trump has approved the export of weapons to Ukraine against Russian-backed separatist rebels, as fighting in the country intensified, the U.S. State Department announced Thursday.
Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the department notified Congress on Dec. 13 that an export license was approved, allowing Ukraine to buy certain light weapons and small arms from American manufacturers.
"The U.S. government is not selling the Ukrainian government these weapons," she said. "Under the previous two administrations, the U.S. government has approved export licenses to Ukraine, so this is nothing new."
The sale includes sniper rifles, ammunition and other associated parts and materials worth $41.5 million, two U.S. congressional sources told ABC News.
In late 2014, President Barack Obama signed legislation to send weapons to Ukraine but he never followed through on the transaction.
What's different this time is Trump has attempted to improve relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, including working with the nation to resolve the Ukraine crisis.
Monday, however, Trump unveiled his National Security Strategy that says Russia is creating "an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing."
"Russia and its proxies are the source of violence in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian government continues to perpetuate an active conflict and humanitarian crisis through its leadership and supply of military forces on the ground," Nauer said Tuesday.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said there have been more than 16,000 ceasefire violations and up to eight Ukrainian soldiers killed in fighting.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the arms decision would push Ukraine "towards reckless new military decisions."
Earlier, the Treasury Department announced sanctions against five individuals for alleged human rights abuses in Russia under the Magnitsky Act.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month said the United States would maintain sanctions on Russia.
U.S. Sen.John McCain, R-Ariz, applauded the Trump administration's decision to help Ukraine's government.
"This decision is years overdue, but nonetheless, it comes at a pivotal moment," the chairman of the Senate Armed Serves Committee said in a statement. "Ukrainians are enduring some of the worst fighting in several months as Russia has withdrawn its officers from a key ceasefire implementation mechanism and Russian-led forces have escalated their attacks in eastern Ukraine. At every turn, Vladimir Putin has chosen war instead of peace in Ukraine. So long as he makes this choice, the United States and the Free World should give Ukraine what it needs to fight back."
He also urged Trump to approve additional sales of defensive lethal weapons, including anti-tank munitions "to fully utilize security assistance funds provided by the Congress to enable Ukraine to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity."
McCain urged a budget deal that supports the $350 million in security assistance for Ukraine as authorized by the National Defense Authorization Act signed this month.