KRUK REPORT: Ukraine should fear the growing cracks in the transatlantic community

KRUK REPORT: Ukraine should fear the growing cracks in the transatlantic community
US President Donald Trump gave plenty of recognition to Russia at the Helsinki summit.
By Kateryna Kruk in Kyiv July 18, 2018

If only US President Donald Trump spoke Russian he would know that he has given Vladimir Putin one of the biggest presents he could. The reaction to the two presidents’ meeting in the Russian media was somewhere close to the French euphoria over their team’s victory in the World Cup. No matter what Russians say, they always sought recognition from the West. Trump has given plenty of it to Putin.

The meeting raised many eyebrows even before it took place. The expectations grew even higher after Robert Mueller indicted 12 Russian agents for interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Ukraine, for example, was particularly nervous before the summit, mostly because of Trump’s earlier remarks about a possible change of the US position towards Crimea. The two presidents didn't speak much about Ukraine, but it didn't bring relief to Ukrainians.

Ukraine was mentioned in the context of the implementation of the Minsk agreement, Nord Stream II and Ukraine's status as a transit country, and the annexation of Crimea. Probably the most notable moment for Ukrainians was when Putin answered a question about Crimea. "President Trump's position on the Crimea is known, he sticks to it, speaks of the illegality of the Crimea's annexation. We have a different point of view, we believe that we have conducted a referendum [italics added] in strict conformity with international law and the UN Charter. For us, this issue is closed,” Putin said. Putin and other Russian officials have for a long time denied any Russian involvement in the Crimean annexation. The staged referendum that was supposed to legitimise the Russian takeover of the peninsula was always described as the genuine will of the locals. 

Standing next to the American president, Putin claimed that "they", meaning Russia, conducted the referendum. In fact, that is the confirmation of all the previous allegations against Russia. They initiated a military operation, took over the territory, conducted a staged "referendum" and annexed the territory of Ukraine. True, the international community has largely refused to recognise the annexation of Crimea and some states imposed sanctions on Russia, including the US. And now Vladimir Putin is standing next to the American president and saying Russia conducted a referendum in Crimea. Trump stands with a poker face.

Some commentators took the fact that Ukraine wasn't much discussed by the two presidents with little enthusiasm. According to them, it means that Ukraine is disappearing from the top agenda of world leaders and there will be less and less interest in Ukrainian affairs. Which means that Ukraine will be even more exposed to hostile Russian actions, knowing that Russian interference in Ukraine won't go away. That is a gloomy scenario and it, of course, is possible. However, what is more important for Ukraine is not its presence in the closing remarks but the general reception of the summit. Trump has received a huge portion of criticism back home. The reactions of Americans were pretty strong, with some saying it was a #SurrenderSummit and the most embarrassing foreign voyage of the American president in decades. Most criticism is directed at Trump's soft reaction on the indictment of 12 Russians, and his suggestion he has more grounds to trust Putin that Russia didn't interfere in the 2016 election than his own intelligence agencies. Not even to mention the fact that the meeting took place a day before the fourth anniversary of the downing of the MH17 airliner, which was shot down by a Russian BUK missile that came to Ukraine together with soldiers of the 53 anti-aircraft missile brigade located in Russia’s Kursk. Trump had a perfect occasion to raise the issue and bring up the conclusions of the international joint investigation team that put direct blame on Russia. But he chose a very soft and careful stance towards Putin and decided to mention the ending of the World Cup in Russia instead.

Potentially, it may create some problems back home for him. If it does, it might lead to the tightening of the US position towards Russia to show Putin and his pals that America is not ready to surrender or accept Putin's behaviour. In this case, Ukraine will definitely remain high on the US foreign agenda for one of the most appalling crimes of the Putin regime. So far Ukraine has seen much support from the Senate and Congress and there are very high chances that this support will remain strong. The last 27 years have proven many times that the worse the relations between Washington and Moscow are, the better it is for Ukraine. If Trump's recent moves towards normalising and softening his position towards Russia backfire and cause him problems at home, in future he will be more careful before playing along Putin's lines. It means that Ukrainian fears of falling under the radar might be premature.

Much more than this summit, Ukraine should fear the growing cracks in the transatlantic community. The recent Nato summit was Trump's manifestation of the new rules of the game which Europe still doesn't know how to treat. Nevertheless, the reality where the EU is "a foe" and Putin is "a partner" is not good for Ukraine, any more than the Nato turbulence is. The more Western countries are preoccupied with their own problems, the less time they will have for Ukraine and the weaker their response will be if things escalate. With Putin ruling Russia a possible escalation is something Ukraine should always have in mind.

An activist, journalist and co-founder of Global Ukrainians, an international network of Ukrainians worldwide, Kateryna Kruk was awarded the Atlantic Council Freedom Award for her work communicating the Euromaidan revolution to the world. She predicted a frozen conflict in July 2014, which has largely come to pass, and now comments on the progress of crucial reforms in Ukraine.