Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Trump, Russia and renewed fighting in Ukraine

Kiev is taking a high-risk gamble that could prompt the West to distance itself from a belligerent Ukraine.

A Ukrainian soldier and tanks on 2 February, 2017 in Avdiivka, Ukraine (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty)
A Ukrainian soldier and tanks on 2 February, 2017 in Avdiivka, Ukraine (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty)
Published 7 Feb 2017 

The Ukraine is shaping up to be the first test for the newly forged partnership between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.  It was among the many topics canvassed when the two leaders spoke late last month but since that conversation, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has again flared up. The construction of the zero-sum security architecture in Europe after the Cold War produced the Ukraine crisis and the ensuing stalemate. Now it seems the looming disintegration of this system is unravelling the impasse.

After more than two decades of warning against the existential threat of Ukraine being absorbed into the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, Russia responded fiercely to the Western-backed toppling of Yanukovich in 2014 by annexing Crimea and supporting rebels in Donbas in eastern Ukraine. After rebel-held Donbas defeated the Ukrainian military in August 2014 and again in February 2015, a new status-quo cemented itself. The Minsk-2 peace agreement is consistent with Moscow’s objectives to federalise Ukraine and thus provide the required autonomy for Ukraine’s eastern regions to maintain friendly relations with Russia and resist absorption into the Euro-Atlantic orbit. Hard power maintains the status-quo in the absence of diplomatic progress as the US and EU have been reluctant to place substantial pressure on Kiev to grant autonomy to Donbas. Covert support for rebel-held Donbas ensures the conflict remains frozen, while the Russian military could intervene directly in the event of a successful Ukrainian offensive.

Trump has introduced radical change to US-Russian relations. Previous efforts by Washington to cooperate or 'reset' relations with Russia were ineffectual: diplomatic pleasantries were expressed yet NATO expanded towards Russian borders. In contrast, Trump appears prepared to challenge the entire post-Cold War security infrastructure. Trump’s overtures towards Russia are largely consistent with his key political objectives expressed over the last 30 years. First, he believes the military rivalry and containment of Russia has contributed to costly and much-despised US subsidies of NATO members, Japan and other states. Second, the US enmity towards Russia, especially over Ukraine, has pushed Russia closer to China and Iran – perceived by Trump to be the principal adversaries of the US. Third, Trump views the fight against Islamic fundamentalism as imperative, which makes a partnership with Russia indispensable since the destiny of Syria is now determined in Moscow. Lastly, rather than dividing the world ideologically between liberal democracies versus authoritarian states, Trump considers the main rivalry is between traditionalist states pursuing national interests and identity, versus a globalist cosmopolitanism that undermines the nation state and national identity.

Trump has subsequently devoted significant political capital on improving relations with Russia, which has not received much support by the Democrats, Republicans or even the American populace. The President has assembled an inner circle of likeminded individuals such as Rex Tillerson and Michael Flynn who stand out from the mainstream Republicans. Tillerson, the Secretary of State, received the Russian Order of Friendship by Putin. General Michael Flynn, the National Security Advisor, famously attended an RT (Russia Today) anniversary dinner in 2015 and was seated next to Putin. While the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are more in tune with the Republican Party on the stance towards Russia, they are no longer permanent members of the National Security Council. In a historically unprecedented decision, Trump replaced them with his own chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who shares Trump’s sentiments concerning Russia.

Moscow has welcomed the Trump presidency but is cautious about what Trump might request in a 'grand bargain'. It would be reasonable to expect that Washington would seek to decouple Russia from China and Iran, which would be detrimental to Russian security and economy. Such concessions may however not be necessary since Trump defines US interests in a manner that is more in tune with Russia than previous US administrations. Trump’s disdain for the current security architecture, and the predictable hostile response by European powers, will likely bring about structural changes. The best approach for Russia is therefore to avoid creating tensions that would undermine Trump's manoeuvring within his own political party.

The election of Trump has significantly reduced the momentum for anti-Russian sanctions. The required solidarity for sanctions is already broken. Trump's rumoured ambassador to the EU has expressed his desire to 'help bring down' the EU, while the President of the EU Council said Trump was a threat to the EU. Across Europe there is concern that Trump will unilaterally remove sanctions on Russia to establish privileged role for the US, and leave the EU exposed with a dwindling internal consensus for maintaining sanctions. The EU initially agreed to impose sanctions on Russia under pressure from Washington, a move that caused more economic hardship for European states than the US. Moscow does therefore not even need to wait for American sanctions to be lifted as the required solidarity is already deteriorating. The removal of sanctions and restoration of ties between Russia and the West would put immense pressure on Kiev to fulfil its obligations under the Minsk agreement. Escalation of the conflict in Ukraine represents a threat to the rapprochement with the US given the pressure on Trump to take a firmer position against Russia.

Kiev, however, has strong incentives to heighten tensions as Western political, military and economic support is waning. As reported by RFERL, Kiev is pursuing a 'creeping offensive' to change realities on the ground and sabotage the emerging détente between the Trump administration and Russia. A major German newspaper similarly reported that the German Federal Government is aware that Kiev is attempting to shift the frontline in its favour' and derail Trump’s intention to relax sanctions on Russia. Putin echoed these reports by argued that 'the Ukrainian leadership needs money, and the best way to get the EU, the US and international organisations to pay is by posing as a victim of aggression'.

With much to lose, Kiev is undertaking a high-risk gamble that could culminate in an improved situation for the rebels in Donbas and see the West distance itself from a belligerent Ukraine.

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