Trump and Putin at the G20 – Part 2: The Ukrainian Problem Still Front and Center

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July 13, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov – translated by Jafe Arnold – 

Continued from Part 1 

More material for analyzing the tentative results of the meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin can be derived from none other than the Ukrainian question. 

First of all, the G20 summit was a big, unpleasant surprise for the Ukrainian government. President Poroshenko was not invited to the summit, a decision made by the summit’s host, Angela Merkel. One theory popular in Russian media is that Berlin’s dissatisfaction with Kiev’s failure to fulfill the Minsk Agreements was the reason for Ukraine’s exclusion. Elections to the German Bundestag are set for late September, and Merkel has no desire to once again remind German voters of the failure of Germany’s foreign policy strategy. Poroshenko would have been an unwanted guest in a German home. Thus, Merkel decided to solve the problem gracefully by simply not inviting him to the meeting of world leaders. What’s more, following the talks between Putin and Trump, the Normandy Four held a meeting without the participation of its own patient – Ukraine.

Ukraine observed the ongoing negotiations and their course with undisguised anxiety. The Ukrainian elite can be understood – after all, Ukraine’s fate is being decided without the participation of the Ukrainian President. A study of the Ukrainian press reveals a wide range of forecasts and estimates ranging from near sheer panic to the tune of “Our American and European allies have given Ukraine up to Putin!” to infatuations claiming that the G20 is but a commonplace and ordinary event. Ukrainian media also had no few columns with assertions boiling down to the allegation that Putin and Trump’s closed-door talks (which lasted for two hours and 15 minutes) were essentially a monologue by the American president who “taught” his Russian colleague a “lesson.” The meeting between Poroshenko and Donald Trump which took place before the G20 summit and lasted only half an hour, on the contrary, was enthusiastically hailed by Ukrainian government media. Serious Ukrainian experts, however, have voiced rather sensible and sober assessments of the summit. Rather paradoxically, they largely agree with those Russian experts who did not succumb to the hype of inflated expectations. 

The most tangible achievements of the Putin and Trump meeting in this regard was the two presidents’ agreement to establish a permanent, two-way communication channel on the Ukrainian problem. Even before the summit it was announced that an American special envoy to Ukraine would be picked, a move which would to a certain degree turn the “Normandy Four” of Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia into a four plus one. 

The Ukrainian question was given further impetus by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Kiev the day after the summit (two days after Putin and Trump’s meeting). Tillerson arrived in Kiev on July 9th, where at Borispol Airport he was met by servile representatives of the Ukrainian establishment. In other words, he was essentially met as the head of a foreign state, a fact which emphasizes the servile behavior of the Ukrainian ruling elite and their dependence on the Americans. 

While in Kiev, Tillerson let the Ukrainians know that Ukraine is merely a tool for the US to pressure Russia. In his own words: “President Trump has made it quite clear that making progress and ultimately solving the crisis here in Ukraine and restoring the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine is required in order for the U.S. and Russia to improve its relationships between the two of our countries.” This statement would have disturbed the Ukrainian political scene if it were actually guided by rational approaches. In the US’ plans, Ukraine is a doomed country which is supposed to be either a battering ram against Russia or (less likely) a bargaining chip against Moscow. Both are humiliating for Ukrainian national pride, and even dangerous for Ukrainian national interests.

Tillerson and his team’s statements and actions were supposed to arouse no less alarm in Russia. The State Department head expressed “disappointment” in the “lack of progress” in implementing the Minsk Agreements and called on Russia to take the first steps for a ceasefire in Donbass by pushing for heavy weapons to be withdrawn from the frontline and ensuring the safety of the OSCE mission in the region. Once again, this all was said even though Moscow is a guarantor, just like Germany and France, not a party to the conflict.

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Instead of the optimistically desired “reset” in Russian-American relations, we saw a repeat of the old accusations against Moscow – allegations made with the aim of exerting pressure. The results of the summit in Hamburg and their evaluation as “great” in Trump’s words are discordant with Tillerson’s statements. 

An equal degree of concern for Russia is encapsulated in the figure of the US’ special envoy for the Ukrainian problem. Following Tilleron’s visit to Kiev, Kurt Volker stayed behind for several days. Volker is a former senior CIA analyst and infamous hawk known for his tough position on Russia. Since 2014, Volker has openly lobbied for Ukraine joining NATO and has insisted on delivering lethal weapons and other forms of military assistance to Ukraine. He also advocates strengthening America’s military presence in the countries bordering Ukraine. Needless to say, the consequences of such are not simply dangerous, but even fatal, possibly leading up to a direct military confrontation between Russia and the West. Volker, however, is not frightened by this. Rather, he believes that Russians’ determination to defend their interests and their own borders is an entirely vain bluff. 

Volker’s other focus is on criticizing the US’ European partners for underestimating the “Russian threat” and not (yet) agreeing to help Ukraine by military means. As if in confirmation of his position, on July 9th NATO military and transport aircraft with troops and military vehicles arrived at the Odessa airport for the Sea Breeze 2017 war games.

Thus, the prospects of the Ukrainian problem being solved through dialogue between the leaders of the US and Russia do not look optimistic. The accusations that Moscow is “disrupting” the Minsk Agreements (as Tilleron’s words should be understood as meaning) and the designation of a supporter of tough pressure on Russia as the US’ special Ukraine envoy should leave no room for any illusions as to the chances of a new “reset” in US-Russia bilateral relations. 

Any breakthrough in Russia-US bilateral relations in regards to the Donbass issue seems unlikely and even illusory. In fact, there is reason to anticipate heightened pressure on Moscow. And the Ukrainian question – despite the importance of the Syrian and North Korean questions – is still the number one priority for Russia’s national interests and national opinion. 

Somewhat paradoxically, this conclusion (if it is correct) should be grounds for cautious optimism on Russia’s part. Putin was almost certainly prepared for such a result and did not buy into any special illusions on the meeting with Trump. Despite obvious human sympathies which the Russian leader feels for his American counterpart, the objective contradictions between the ruling American elite and Russia have not disappeared. Let us also note that there is no strong America-phobia in Russia in the strict sense of the word. If at all, America-phobia is limited exclusively to ruling circles. Moreover, the Republicans’ traditional, tough tactics are more convenient and predictable for Russia compared to the “strangling embrace” characteristic of the Democrats.

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In conclusion, I believe that the results of the negotiations between the two presidents and subsequent actions on the part of both the Trump Administration and Russia’s leadership allow us to say that a prolongation of the New Cold War is highly probable as opposed to any new “reset.” 

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