The Trump administration seems to have figured out that the road to better relations with Russia goes through Ukraine. Relations took a turn for the worse when Russia tried to demolish the international rules-based order with its illegal annexation of Crimea and its undeclared war in Eastern Ukraine. Repairing and normalizing relations will only be possible when Russia reverses its aggression.
President Trump took an important first step by meeting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the Oval Office last week, before seeing Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg.
The president was able to hear first-hand how Ukraine is moving ahead with its reforms despite having to devote over five percent of its GDP to the war effort. The war continues despite Russia and Ukraine signing the so-called Minsk ceasefire agreement almost three years ago. Russian and proxy forces continue violating the Minsk ceasefire on a daily basis with almost complete impunity, raining down artillery and rocket attacks and inflicting significant civilian casualties.
Against this backdrop, the president and his team discussed ways to deepen U.S. support for Ukraine, and they made clear that sanctions on Russia will remain in force until Moscow ends its aggression and restores Eastern Ukraine to Kyiv’s control.
As he prepares for his European trip, the president should move quickly to build on this success. He should try to jump-start stalled diplomatic efforts aimed at finally delivering the Minsk Agreements and securing a permanent ceasefire and Russian withdrawal from Eastern Ukraine.
The situation couldn’t be more urgent. Diplomatic efforts, led by Germany and France in the so-called Normandy Format, have kept things from getting worse, but lack the means to alter Putin’s calculus. Unless it faces additional pressure, Russia will have no incentive to de-escalate its military attacks or negotiate seriously on implementing the Minsk agreements.
To create the much-needed leverage before he meets with Putin, President Trump should use his visit to Warsaw on July 6, just before the G-20, to announce that he is launching a major effort to end the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Warsaw would be an ideal venue, given Poland’s long-standing support for Ukraine’s freedom and independence, and its vital defense role along NATO’s Eastern flank in deterring Russian aggression.
The president’s initiative could begin with the appointment of a high-level special envoy to reinforce the diplomatic efforts of Ukraine, Germany and France. The envoy’s role would be to work with all the stakeholders to secure full implementation of the Minsk agreements, and to engage directly with the Kremlin officials who call the shots in Eastern Ukraine.
To strengthen the hand of the special envoy, the president should announce that he is seeking Congressional support to provide Ukraine with additional defensive weapons (such as counter-battery radars, armored vehicles, anti-tank weapons, secure communications gear, and reconnaissance drones) as well as training and intelligence support. The weapons package would be aimed at reducing Ukraine's casualties, deterring further Russian attacks and promoting a political solution, rather than escalating the conflict.
In addition, the president could declare his support for the Senate sanctions legislation, and indicate that he would welcome Congressional authority to tighten sanctions even further if Russia continues to block a political solution. He could call on our European Union partners to work with his administration on a new sanctions package that could be applied if negotiations bog down. Needless to say, with Russian attacks intensifying, now is not the time to ease any of the sanctions unilaterally.
In his meeting with president Putin, the president could then offer Russia a simple choice: get serious about a negotiated solution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, which would reduce Russia’s international isolation and open the way to an easing of sanctions; or face a more difficult future.
By engaging in negotiations with Moscow from a position of strength, president Trump could succeed where previous efforts have failed in overcoming the biggest threat to peace and stability in Europe. He could dispel, once and for all, the suspicions that have paralyzed his administration’s policy toward Russia by honoring the US commitment to Ukraine’s freedom and security. And he could begin a process of normalizing relations with Russia.
Ambassador Alexander “Sandy” Vershbow, is a fellow at the Atlantic Council, and formerly the Deputy Secretary General of NATO, Assistant Secretary of Defense, and U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Russia, and South Korea.
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