July 24, 2018
Before the NATO summit in Brussels and the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, many observers were apprehensive about Ukraine’s prospects at these events. As it turned out, in Brussels, NATO strongly supported Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity. The alliance committed to further development of the bilateral partnership, encouraged Ukraine to make the best use of its opportunities for reform and for membership, and condemned Russia’s human rights violations and failure to live up to the Minsk Agreements. While this was not a 100 percent endorsement of Kyiv’s aspirations, it was a lot better than many expected. Those statements leave open the possibility of future NATO membership if Ukraine can find the means to move forward.

In Helsinki, surprisingly, the Ukraine issue apparently did not figure prominently in the discussions. This fact, however, is a mixed blessing for Kyiv; it could lead President Vladimir Putin to believe that President Donald Trump is not all that concerned with Ukraine. Moreover, developments subsequent to the Helsinki summit raise several potential alarms for Ukraine.

First, the lack of an agenda or full communiqué regarding what was discussed in Helsinki has already stimulated enormous confusion within the US government. Moreover, in the absence of a communiqué Putin has been able to say he proposed a referendum for the Donbas, supposedly under UN supervision and then simultaneously warn that the situation around Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine could now be aggravated, allegedly because of Ukrainian authorities’ refusal to settle matters according to Moscow’s dictates. This charge is a standard Russian pretext for invasion. Therefore, and in the light of Trump’s many expressions of contempt for NATO, Putin may well think he has room for new pressure beyond what is already occurring. Already, 147 ships have been detained illegally in the Sea of Azov by Russia as a sign of its unrelenting economic warfare against Ukraine.

But there are larger potentially serious threats on the horizon. The Helsinki summit, Trump’s bizarre behavior there, and his behavior thereafter raise serious doubts as to the cohesion of NATO and its ability to stand behind Ukraine. Indeed, Trump himself, on many occasions, not only betrayed his utter ignorance of European security issues; he also made it clear that he has no understanding of Article V of the Washington Treaty, that provides for members to act on behalf of the common defense of any who are attacked. This behavior must alarm European leaders, and especially those that, like Kyiv, are in the eye of the hurricane, from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Equally distressing is Trump’s failure to brief his own national security team on the discussions in Helsinki, confirming that he has still not learned how to govern. It also remains the case that Trump either cannot or will not grasp what he is up against in Putin, and will not give strategic direction for countering probes like Russia’s information warfare against the United States and active measures against the United States and European election machinery. Certainly Trump’s remarks that Crimea is Russian because most people there voted for it and speak Russian betray not only a deep ignorance of the issues but an even more worrisome refusal to accept the findings of his subordinates. Certainly his attacks on Article V cannot reassure NATO members, not to mention states like Ukraine whose security ultimately depends on Washington’s good judgment.

As a result, it is unlikely NATO will meet the spending targets supposedly agreed to in Brussels or show cohesion on key issues for Ukraine like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Indeed, Trump may be backing away from that if he was correctly quoted as saying that it is Germany’s decision whether or not to build the pipeline. Trump’s behavior will reinforce the determination of many European politicians that the United States cannot be trusted and that they must seek alternative solutions (invariably that means a deal with Moscow); it will also stiffen their opposition to increased defense spending, as is now the case in Germany. In the absence of a coherent and responsible US policy, Ukraine remains very much at risk, as do NATO members in its vicinity. This should not have been the outcome of either summit, and it confirms the apprehensions of those who warned that the Helsinki summit was unnecessary.

The announcement that Trump has invited Putin to Washington for a second summit this fall can only further undermine the positive decisions reached at Brussels and make their implementation, whether by Kyiv or by NATO members, even more uncertain.

Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.

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