The Trump administration is facing its first major foreign policy test as the war in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass re-ignites with volleys of Russian artillery pounding Ukrainian lines and killing dozens of soldiers and at least ten civilians since Sunday. The artillery barrages, along with a renewed ground fighting between Russian-backed rebels and government forces around the contested industrial town of Avdiyivka, represent the worst outbreak of fighting in the Donbass since the 2015 Minsk Protocol which brought about a tense ceasefire.
Given the tight political and financial ties between the Trump administration and Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, the renewed Russian military assault appears to be Putin’s way of testing the waters to determine how far Russia can go in its irredentist aggression without provoking an American response. And the answer so far appears to be quite far indeed. It is particularly telling that the Russian attack, which included some 2,500 artillery and mortar shells on Sunday alone, came the day after Presidents Trump and Putin held their first phone conference, in which they discussed forming a new alliance against Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) and on other issues.
Even as a barrage of mortars rained down on Ukraine, leaving scores dead in a naked show of Russian aggression, and Russian-backed separatists renewed their terror campaign in the cities of the Donbass, the response from Trump’s supposedly tough-on-aggression White House was muted. Asked Wednesday if the administration views the fighting as a direct challenge from Russia, White House press secretary Sean Spicer could say only that “we’re keeping an eye on the situation in Ukraine.” Earlier in the week the Trump administration released a statement condemning the violence that managed to avoid mentioning Russia at all.
The consensus among foreign policy experts is that Putin’s Kremlin is, in the words of a senior U.S. defense official who spoke to Foreign Policy magazine anonymously, trying to “gauge what they could accomplish” under a Trump administration. Alexander Vershbow, the ex-deputy secretary general of NATO, said that the Kremlin “may be trying to test the administration to see if they distance themselves from Kiev, and tell [Ukrainian President] Petro Poroshenko that he has to make the best deal with Russia, which of course would destroy him politically.”
And if the Trump administration’s response to the attack so far is any indication, it appears they will leave Putin tremendous room for maneuver when it comes to the illegal irredentist campaigns he so loves. That could have deadly consequences for the citizens of a dozen former Soviet republics whose embrace of democracy could easily be turned back by an assault from Putin’s kleptocratic dictatorship. The supposedly freedom-loving Trump, however, has nothing to say to condemn this naked aggression, revealing once again the corrupt financial dealings behind his political lies.
The roots of Trump’s abandonment of the Ukrainian people are of course financial. Both Trump himself and may of his advisors have tight monetary ties to the inner circle of Russian oligarchs, and there is even some indication that has advisers illegally met and coordinated with Kremlin officials during the campaign. Whether those accusations are true or not, it is undeniable that the Kremlin intervened in our presidential election with the explicit aim of making Donald Trump president.
One of Putin’s key calculations in making that decision was that Trump would abolish or at least ease the Western sanctions that have been slapped on Moscow since Putin’s unilateral occupation of Crimea in 2014, an invasion that Trump has denied occurred. And there are whisperings of even more nefarious back-room dealings: The notorious Steele dossier included, besides its reporting of Trump’s sexual activities in a Moscow hotel room, a claim that the Kremlin had offered Trump aide Carter Page a 19% share in the state oil giant Rosneft in exchange for a lifting of the sanctions. Then last December, months after the Steele dossier was compiled, 19.5% of Rosneft was sold to “parties unknown.”
While the exact specifics of the backroom deals made between the Kremlin and the Trump administration may never be revealed, what is clear is that the new administration is allowing an unabashed show of aggression against a democratic ally by a brutal kleptocratic dictatorship. The neo-Nazi alt-right, with its love of all things oppressive, has always had a soft spot for Vladimir Putin. Now, with men like Steve Bannon pulling the strings of foreign policy formation, that Putin fetishization, once confined to 4chan message boards, could be dictating the future of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians threatened by Russian aggression. Ultimately, Trump’s refusal to condemn the Russians is a fundamental betrayal of what America supposedly stands for, and he and his administration should be taken to task for it.
James DeVinne is a student at American University in Washington, DC majoring in International Service with a focus on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a founding member of Occupy Baltimore and interns at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.