Russia

Trump's New Ukraine Envoy Changes the Tune

Getting tough with Russia over Ukraine but not Syria makes no strategic sense.

Tougher talk from Washington.

Photographer: Aleksey Filippov/AFP/Getty Images

When candidate Donald Trump made overtures to Russia during the 2016 election campaign, a grand bargain between the two nations -- U.S. acquiescence to Russian depredations in Ukraine in exchange for help in defeating Islamic State in Syria -- looked like a possible scenario under a Trump presidency. No one expected the U.S. to take a tougher line on Ukraine and yield Syria to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet that's what appears to be going on now, but more by accident than as part of any consistent U.S. strategy.

When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson picked Kurt Volker as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, he signaled a tougher approach toward Russia's Ukrainian adventures. An old friend of that biggest of Russia hawks, Senator John McCain, Volker traveled to eastern Ukraine and laid out a set of views that will be highly inconvenient both to the Kremlin and to its longtime negotiating partners on the Ukraine crisis, Germany and France.

QuickTake Standoff in Ukraine

He said that, unlike under the Obama administration, the U.S. was no longer averse to supplying Ukraine with weapons -- something for which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has long lobbied. The decision isn't made yet, but, according to Volker, it wouldn't "provoke Russia to do more than they are already doing, and it also isn't going to change any kind of balance that way." Instead, the weapons would allow Ukraine to defend itself against further Russian aggression. "Russia says it won't do that and isn't doing that, so then there should be no risk to anybody, if that's the case," Volker said.

He also appeared to buy the Ukrainian position on several important points of contention: That Russia alone is hindering the resolution of the conflict under the Minsk agreements, that it needs to pull out its forces before "a basis of governance going forward" is created in eastern Ukraine, and that it's the pro-Russian rebels who are blocking supplies to civilians in the regions from the rest of Ukraine. As the European negotiators -- and Victoria Nuland, Volker's predecessor as the State Department's point person on Ukraine -- well know, it's not as simple as that.

Ukraine has been unable to legislate on elections in the separatist-held areas, with the key political forces in Ukraine demanding that control of Ukraine's eastern border be restored to it first -- a condition not included in the Minsk agreement. And it's Ukrainian nationalists, with reluctant support from the government, who have cut off economic ties with the separatist regions.

Volker is an experienced diplomat, and his pointed message to Russia is no gaffe: It's the new U.S. policy of "more engagement," as Volker understands it. The idea appears to be a full revision of the Minsk agreement to force Russia to comply with Ukrainian demands, using arms supplies to Ukraine to raise the cost of continued conflict for Russia.

In Syria, by contrast, the Trump administration has been accommodating to Russia. The Central Intelligence Agency's line, pushed by Director Mike Pompeo, is to counteract Russian influence there, as well as the emerging Russia-Iran axis. But Trump clearly doesn't buy it: He has defunded the CIA program that armed Syrian rebels fighting the Russian-supported regime, doing the opposite of what Volker appears to propose in Ukraine.

The U.S. policy in Syria is a continuation of Obama's -- effectively to let Russia deal with it. Russia, while paying lip service to Syria's integrity, has been working to split the country into regime-controlled and rebel-controlled areas, freezing the conflict as Minsk largely froze the one in eastern Ukraine. After fighting fiercely to gain more territory for the rebels at the expense of Islamic State, the U.S. appears happy to go along.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin engaged in Syria to strengthen his bargaining position on Ukraine -- as many, myself included, suspected at the time -- he didn't quite get what he want. But what he's getting from the U.S. is even better for him -- and worse for U.S. strategic interests. 

If the U.S. arms Ukraine, the Kremlin's propaganda claims that the eastern Ukrainian war is actually a proxy conflict with the U.S. which is trying to tear the Slavic community apart would be that much more credible and that much more support-mobilizing ahead of the 2018 presidential election. While increasing the cost of further support for the separatists, it would make them more politically acceptable and could lead to Russian recognition of eastern Ukraine's puppet "people's republics," a collapse of Minsk and more deadly clashes, still as unlikely as ever to end in Ukraine's favor. Putin has tolerated the Minsk process, believing that time is on his side, but more U.S. meddling may prompt him to seek closure.

U.S. concessions in Syria, meanwhile, set Russia up as an equal to the U.S. in the Middle East. Local players must now deal with both sides. Turkey's decision to buy Russia's S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, heavily advertised by the Kremlin during the Syrian conflict, is one recent result.

Now, it appears the Trump administration wants to be more involved in the former Soviet republic, where it has few economic or geopolitical interests, than in the Muslim world where Russia's influence is growing. Being tough on Russia everywhere would be a more consistent strategy -- one that McCain would advocate. Being relatively soft everywhere and only showing displeasure through economic sanctions, Obama-style, would also be a consistent, do-no-harm strategy. But current U.S. policies make little strategic sense.

That's likely because there is no unified strategy behind all the different U.S. moves. Tillerson -- reportedly frustrated by his interactions with the Trump White House -- is trying to embrace the McCain and Obama models at once, perhaps because he has staffers from both camps who can sell their views convincingly to the novice foreign policy chief. The CIA is filled with Russia hawks, but Trump distrusts the intelligence community. Generals who lead the Syria military effort concentrate on beating Islamic State, not on the eventual political settlement, and Trump is tempted to go along with them because he promised to beat Islamic State, not to fix the Syrian state.

The U.S. is a rudderless giant aircraft carrier. Putin doesn't even need to outmaneuver it; he just has to move around it -- something he's uncommonly good at.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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