10 February 2017

In Ukraine, Fears of a U.S. Pivot to Russia

U.S. President Donald Trump had a busy first week in office. Within days of his inauguration, Trump had already begun making good on campaign promises, laying the groundwork to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and temporarily suspending immigration to the United States. Then, during his eighth day in office, Jan. 28, Trump held his first direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. During their telephone conversation, the two leaders stressed the importance of "restoring mutually beneficial trade and economic ties" between their countries. They also agreed to work together on foreign policy issues, touching on the Middle East, North Korea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This last area of collaboration raised concern among members of the Ukrainian government who fear that warmer ties between the United States and Russia could damage Kiev's strategic position and lead to reduced support from Washington. As the Trump administration re-evaluates U.S. policy toward Russia, Ukraine's leaders are reaching out to other allies in the West while ramping up military efforts in Donbas. Still, these measures may not be enough to shelter Kiev from changing geopolitical winds.


The United States has been an important ally for Ukraine since the Euromaidan uprising in 2014. Once Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, the United States, along with the European Union, imposed economic sanctions on Moscow in rebuke. Washington has also supplied Kiev with economic assistance while bolstering Ukrainian security forces with joint training efforts and non-lethal materiel support.

A Different Approach

With the new administration in Washington came fresh worries in Kiev about the future of the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship. Trump promised throughout his presidential campaign to improve relations with Russia in the interest of cooperating on matters such as the Syrian civil war. At the same time, he questioned the United States' continued support for NATO and European borderland countries, including Ukraine and the Baltic states. Trump called sanctions against Russia "bad for business," raising concerns in Ukraine that the United States would lift or ease the punitive measures that former President Barack Obama's administration imposed on Moscow.

During their phone conversation, Putin and Trump couched their promises to work together in vague terms and skirted the subject of sanctions. Even so, their prospective collaboration may signal a shift in U.S. policy toward Ukraine. Under Obama, Washington and Moscow were diametrically opposed when it came to the Ukraine conflict. The Obama administration, moreover, made it clear that any change in its sanctions regime would be contingent on Russia's adherence to the Minsk protocols, the deal to end the combat in eastern Ukraine. Trump, on the other hand, has suggested that he might consider revising the sanctions based on Russia's cooperation in other areas, such as an agreement on nuclear arms reduction. The new president recently said talk of lifting the punitive measures was premature. Nonetheless, he has established that the sanctions regime could be negotiated on terms other than the conflict in Ukraine — a situation Putin has long been trying to engineer.

Courting Support in Europe

Disheartened by the new U.S. administration's stance on Russia, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko traveled to Germany on Jan. 30 to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany, as the European Union's de facto leader, is an invaluable ally for Ukraine — all the more so now that the United States may be wavering in its commitment to Kiev. In a joint press conference with Poroshenko, Merkel reiterated her position that the European Union must keep its sanctions against Moscow in place until Russia has fully implemented the Minsk protocols.

The German chancellor reportedly broached the subject of Ukraine with Trump as well — just before his call with Putin. (Trump and Merkel reaffirmed their commitment to NATO during the same call, though Trump reiterated that member states must do more to meet their defense spending quota.)

But support from Germany alone will not ensure that the EU sanctions on Russia will stay in place. Extending the measures requires a unanimous vote in the Continental bloc, and several member states, including Hungary, Greece and Italy, have questioned their efficacy. If the United States revises its own sanctions regime, dissent over the EU program will probably increase. Furthermore, between Brexit negotiations and general elections in prominent member states France and Germany, the European Union has more pressing concerns than keeping pressure on Russia.

Upping the Ante in Eastern Ukraine

In eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, fighting recently intensified. Seven Ukrainian soldiers and 15 separatists were killed along the line of contact Jan. 29, and several more casualties were reported the next day. The Ukrainian military and separatist forces each blamed the other for instigating the escalation. Though Ukrainian officials accused Russia of orchestrating the flare-up to strengthen its negotiating position with the West, Kiev could have incited the violence to draw attention to the conflict and rally international support for continued sanctions on Moscow.

Ukraine is in a precarious position. As Washington pursues warmer ties with Moscow, Kiev will look to its European allies for greater support. It will also try to swing perceptions of the conflict in eastern Ukraine against Russia, using flare-ups in the violence to persuade the United States to stand firm on sanctions. These efforts may not keep the Trump administration from reaching an understanding with the Kremlin, but they promise to make the situation in Donbas more volatile.

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