1. Ukraine. More guns more going nuts
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.
«The administration has made a point of conveying that the president recognizes the importance of the Ukrainian issue»
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