The Trump administration has adopted a low-key approach bordering on indifference regarding the bloody flare-up of violence in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists. It signifies a radical shift in Washington’s approach.
Kiev and Moscow have blamed each other for the violence. Kiev alleges that Moscow is precipitating a new fact on the ground by taking advantage of Trump’s interest in improving relations with Russia, while Moscow says Kiev triggered the violence with the hope of drawing the West’s attention to the frozen conflict, which it fears has been waning steadily.
There could be an element of truth in both versions. Importantly, however, Washington should have jumped into the fray and put the blame on Russia, which is what the previous Barack Obama administration unfailingly did all along. But Washington is instead adopting a soft stance. The Associated Press estimates that the “restrained tone may reflect the start of a new U.S. approach to dealing with Russia’s cross-border activity (in eastern Ukraine), even as top U.S. officials are pledging to support Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
The State Department statement on the latest incidents in Ukraine doesn’t even mention Russia. Russia’s government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta has duly acknowledged the change in tone in Washington:
Washington is not blaming the unrecognised (Donbas) republics for breaking the ceasefire, is not stating any support for Kiev, is not saying a single word about the role of Russia … Different variations of these elements were, as a rule, a key part of all statements of Ukraine under Barack Obama’s administration.
What does it add up to? During their phone conversation on January 28, Trump and President Vladimir Putin were on the same page with regard to Ukraine insofar as both wanted an end to the conflict and neither wanted it to “turn into a long-standing crisis”. The Kremlin spokesman Dmirty Peskov later highlighted this approvingly. (TASS)
Indeed, Trump is on record that no vital American interests are at stake in Ukraine. He has even sounded conciliatory on the hugely controversial issue of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Trump and Putin would be conscious that if somehow an understanding could be worked out on Ukraine, that would lead to the ending of US sanctions against Russia. Thus, conceivably, the soft line taken by the Trump administration on the recent outbreak of violence hints at a new flexibility to work with Russia to sort out the problem.
Of course, the state of play within the trans-Atlantic alliance at the moment works to Russia’s advantage, with the US’ allies in Europe increasingly at odds with Trump. Besides, European Union is caught up in its own existential problems and Germany and France are heading for elections. The Wall Street Journal reported today that NATO has shelved a plan to meet with Ukrainian officials about the alliance’s missile-defense system. It is a new sign that the alliance is trying to avoid provoking Russia. A Reuters report noted:
The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, for sure, is worried like hell that Trump might throw him under the bus. He rushed to Berlin to get updated on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversation with Trump. Merkel is Poroshenko’s last big hope among European leaders. But her own equations with Trump remain volatile.
The bottom line is that Trump takes pride in being a deal maker. So does Putin. Is there a deal in the making between the two wizards over Ukraine? Trump is a businessman and a deal, after all, has to be in ‘win-win’ spirit. If the US retrenches from Ukraine and accepts Russia’s legitimate interests in Eurasia, what is it that Russia can do reciprocally?
Put differently, if Trump administration ratchets up tensions with Iran, will Moscow reciprocate with a similar ‘soft stance’? It cannot be lost on Washington that Moscow has indeed downplayed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s threatening statement on Wednesday regarding Iran’s regional policies. Had it been a similar belligerent statement by Susan Rice in the Barack Obama era, there would have been a tsunami of condemnation by now in the Russian official media. Whereas, 24 hours have passed since Flynn spoke, and mum is the word still in Moscow.
To rub salt into the Iranian wound, Sputnik instead featured an interview with the Israeli ambassador to the Kremlin Gary Koren expressing “high appreciation” for Russian peacekeeping role in Syria!
The point is, Iran is to the US what Ukraine is to Russia – touching on core interests. Welcome to the ‘multipolar’ world!
Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.