2. US and Ukraine. The best friends forever?
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.
Pawel Kowal is a former Secretary of State in Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2006-2007) and member of the National Security Council. He served both as a member of the Polish Parliament and a member of the European Parliament.