US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has come out strongly against Russia during a whistle-stop visit of countries in the Black Sea region. Austin said that Moscow was in no position to veto Ukraine's wish of joining NATO.
The US defense secretary also said that Moscow was an obstacle to peace in the region.
"Let's be clear, that Russia started this war and Russia is the obstacle to a peaceful resolution," Austin said during a joint briefing with his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Taran.
"So 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.
US looking to strengthen alliances
Austin has traveled to Ukraine for the second time in less than 2 months, for talks on how to develop defense cooperation in the region.
The US wants to strengthen relations with Black Sea countries, including Romania and Georgia, in a bid to counter Russian influence in the area.
Moscow, however, has claimed that it is Kyiv that stands in the way of progress and denies having troops in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces have been locked in a conflict with Russian-backed separatists since 2014, after the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia.
A military standoff this year saw Russia mobilizing troops and other military assets to the border near Ukraine. This prompted Kyiv to urge NATO members to speed up its entry into the bloc.
While Kyiv has hopes of joining the alliance, it is not yet eligible for membership, due to not having met certain criteria.
Austin will head to Romania on Wednesday, having already visited Georgia on Monday.
kb/sri (AFP, Reuters)