It seemed reasonable to assume only a half of a year ago that relations between Washington and Ukraine would go south after Donald Trump’s election, and that the new president of the United States would have little interest in searching for ways to resolve the Donbas conflict. Among Mr. Trump’s entourage, the dominant view during the campaign was that Kiev favored his rival, Hillary Clinton. Observers were also convinced that the billionaire’s presidency would begin with a strong outreach to Moscow.
Several months after Mr. Trumps inauguration, however, things look different. The new president, besieged with allegations that Moscow interfered with the U.S. elections to help him win, is trying to avoid any appearance of favoring Russia. For the first time since President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) there was not even a temporary warming in relations with Moscow after a new occupant moved into the White House. Also, from the president’s point of view, the Donbas conflict offers a handy opportunity to demonstrate that his administration is not cozying up to the Kremlin.
Business and politics
Another factor working for Ukraine is business. American companies have existing and potential interests in Ukraine and throughout Central and Eastern Europe. It’s not just about selling weapons. U.S. energy sector firms, for example, have interests that converge with those of Ukraine, Poland and other countries in the region that have been trying to block a new joint Russian-German offshore gas pipeline project. In the opponents’ view, that project only enhances Russia’s dangerously dominant position in the EU energy market.
During the construction of the first two lines of the Nord Stream pipeline (2011-2012), opponents, mainly Poland, could not even dream of receiving support from Washington. Currently, U.S. gas suppliers are Russia’s competitors in the EU. As a result, they have stakes in U.S. policy toward Russia and the Donbas conflict.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and President Trump share a common trait: they both came to politics from big business. Some good chemistry could have appeared between them during Mr. Poroshenko’s White House visit on June 20, 2017. Once the main talks hosted by Vice President Mike Pence were over, Mr. Trump greeted the head of the Ukrainian state in person. The meeting was brief, but President Trump made sure it was presented to the media as crowning their joint diplomatic success. (The talk’s specifics, though, did not all go so well for Mr. Poroshenko: the administration was not prepared to sell Ukraine Javelins, the fire-and-forget anti-tank missile. This U.S. weapon system could significantly strengthen Ukraine’s position in the standoff with Russia.)
By playing up Mr. Poroshenko’s visit, the U.S. president wanted to send a signal before the G20 summit in Germany that he was actively pursuing a policy in Ukraine. As a matter of fact, the American strategy for the Donbas conflict has not yet crystalized. The Ukrainian president did, however, achieve a public relations success. The context also worked in his favor. In the early summer of 2017, Kiev was on a diplomatic roll: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited there on July 9, followed the next day by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Mr. Poroshenko also had an opportunity to speak to French President Emmanuel Macron, whose policy of distancing France from Russia is a boon for Kiev. As has been with the early positions of the Trump administration, the French line on the Minsk peace agreements is not fully developed, but it is clear that dark scenarios of Ukraine being left alone in the conflict with Russia are not materializing.
Many observers in Kiev are now convinced that Donald Trump’s presidency may prove more advantageous for Ukraine than his predecessor Barack Obama’s. The administration has made a point of conveying that the president recognizes the importance of the Ukrainian issue. Literally a dozen hours before the first Putin-Trump meeting on July 7, 2017, a sentence about the negative role of Russia in the war in Donbas was added to the speech that the U.S. president delivered in Warsaw.
It had been expected for quite some time that the U.S. would appoint a special representative for the conflict in Donbas. However, the official announcement was made on July 7, 2017, the same day as the first face-to-face meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Hamburg. The second surprise was the appointee: the job went to Kurt Volker, a diplomat linked to Senator John McCain, known for his hard stance toward Russia. This nomination seems to convey the message that Washington does not intend to play a double diplomatic game with Moscow on the Ukraine conflict. Some even interpret it as an attempt to build a political structure in which Sen. McCain will have an influence on the administration’s actions in that area.
Some experts emphasized that the appointment of a U.S. envoy to Ukraine could not have happened on Mr. Obama’s watch. There was also speculation that, for the first time since 2014, a real chance had emerged to create a different format for negotiating a settlement for Donbas, in which the U.S. and EU would participate. (For now, Germany and France have self-appointed themselves to solely represent the West in the process.)
Doves and hawks
Such a change, however, may materialize in a more distant time, if at all. For now, Mr. Volker has travelled to Ukraine to study the situation up close and paid visits to Paris, Berlin and Vienna. All this does not amount to much for Kiev – but it signals that Washington will not be completely detached from the drama in Donbas.
To date, this is the most important accomplishment of Ukrainian diplomacy, led by two seasoned hands: Deputy Head of Presidential Administration Konstantin Yeliseyev and Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin. Perhaps U.S. weapons sales may follow eventually – the approach could receive support from Mr. Volker.
Among American elites, particularly in the Republican Party, there are two approaches to the conflict in Donbas. The first, represented by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is characterized by a desire to seek a settlement with Russia. The other, exemplified by Sen. McCain, is to take a more principled stand against the Kremlin. Only a few weeks ago, no one expected it to have a better chance of prevailing in the Trump administration.
Often, the more belligerent attitude characterizes officials with military background, and these happen to be the men playing increasingly important roles in Mr. Trump’s team. It is not only Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, but also current White House Chief of Staff (until recently U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security) Gen. John Kelly, and National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster. Adding Mr. Volker to the team strengthens the harder-line policy option on Ukraine.
The newest set of U.S. sanctions against Russian economic interests, passed in Congress and signed, though with reserve, by the president, is yet another factor chilling Moscow-Washington relations. President Putin has already described the measure as “rudeness.” He did not expect the move and must feel disappointed by Mr. Trump’s actions in office.
Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to Washington since 2008, was recalled to Moscow. He is an experienced diplomate who between 1990 and 2003 ran the Russian mission to NATO. In that post, he was known for operating brazenly on the far edges of his diplomatic mandate. He could have acted in a similar fashion with some members of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign team. Possibly, he went too far this time. His recall can be regarded as symbolic.
In the noise of the cascading troubles that the enterprising diplomat brought down on President Trump’s head, the most delicate issue of current U.S.-Ukrainian relations is quietly fading away. It is about Mr. Trump’s July 25, 2017 accusation on Twitter that the Ukrainians “sabotaged” his campaign because Kiev, in his opinion, was quietly rooting for Hillary Clinton. This matter will no longer play a role as the administration does not have time to deal with such trivial matters. Russia’s decision in August to expel 755 U.S. diplomats and embassy employees shows that the logic of confrontation has prevailed in U.S.-Russian relations. For Kiev, this itself was not a bad piece of news, at least in terms of its own dealings with Washington.
President Trump may not have a comprehensive policy design for Ukraine, but a few points have become clearer. Ukraine will not be “abandoned” by the U.S. Arms sales and greater military support for that country could be Washington’s next steps. Energy issues will also, in all probability, be resolved in Kiev’s favor.
As long as Washington-Moscow relations remain tense and continue deteriorating, however, there will be no way to reshape the stalled negotiation process on the Donbas situation. In such a scenario – the most likely today – the U.S. will increasingly find itself an active ally of Ukraine, not a broker between Moscow and Kiev. And the frozen conflict in the East may gradually turn into a proxy war between Russia and the U.S.