UkraineAlert

A year ago today I felt as if a large circle in my life had been completed.

At a new memorial park near Amsterdam Airport dedicated to the 298 victims of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, I stood among the still-grieving families as the names of the passengers were read one by one. As I scanned the hundreds of people assembled, I noticed some children with just one parent, possibly an indication that they had lost a mother or father in the crash on July 17, 2014. It made me incredibly sad. The park features 298 trees for each of the victims and a large field of bright sunflowers, representing the crash site in eastern Ukraine. Because the site is located in an active war zone, few of the relatives have managed to visit in the search for some sort of closure.

Having been one of the first of a team of international observers on the scene in rebel-held Donetsk, we had very little connection with the victims. But that gradually changed, as through circumstances, I began to meet some of the families. Many have shared their tragic stories with me. But there is one thing that all the families are still desperately seeking, and that is justice.

What an eerie coincidence that the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was held a day before the fourth anniversary of the downing of MH17. Ukraine, of course, is a major source of disagreement between the two presidents. One would have expected to hear the leader of the free world at least mention one of the worst crimes in aviation history. He did not. He didn’t even mention Ukraine.

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There’s no dancing around it. Donald Trump got schooled in Helsinki.

President Vladimir Putin put on a hell of a show. The masterfully prepared former spy buttered up the US president at every opportunity, and even tossed him a soccer ball from the just-completed World Cup that Russia hosted to lighten up the press conference.

Smart analysts knew that this was coming. Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, pointed out in The Washington Post that Putin has a far better understanding of international affairs than Trump after two decades in power.

Laying all that aside, the Trump-Putin summit was a disaster for US interests and how the world perceives America. One commentator called it a press conference of platitudes. It was far worse. The right phrase is moral equivalency.

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US President Donald J. Trump on July 16 appeared to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials over the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia meddled in the 2016 elections, saying he saw “no reason why” Moscow would have acted in that way.

Speaking at a joint press conference following his first summit with Putin in Helsinki, Trump said: “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today” on meddling.

Trump also insisted that there had been no collusion between his campaign and Russia. On July 13, the US Justice Department indicted twelve Russian intelligence agents for hacking the Democratic National Committee and Trump’s Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton. On July 16, the Justice Department charged a Russian woman who tried to set up meetings between Trump and Putin in 2016. It made clear that the woman, Mariia Butina, was part of a Russian intelligence effort to influence the US elections.

Trump acknowledged that he had been told by some US officials, including Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, that Russia was behind cyberattacks in 2016. “I don’t see any reason why it would be,” he said. “We ran a brilliant campaign, and that’s why I’m president,” he added.

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When two members of Croatia’s World Cup squad recorded a nine-second video dedicating their quarter final victory over Russia to Ukraine, they chose to accompany it with the patriotic slogan “Slava Ukraini” (“Glory to Ukraine”). As former Dynamo Kyiv players, they appear to have believed they were sending a somewhat cheeky but essentially harmless message to their Ukrainian friends. However, to millions of horrified viewers in Russia, there was nothing innocent about the video. To them, it was a dire insult to national honor straight out of the Nazi era.

This historically illiterate interpretation of the phrase “Glory to Ukraine” is perfectly in line with modern Russia’s preference for viewing all things Ukrainian through the narrow and distorting prism of Ukraine’s World War II-era independence movement.

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On July 16, a historic summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will take place in Helsinki.

Many have speculated as to what the Master of the Deal will offer the Russian strongman. No one knows. Kyiv is legitimately worried that Trump will give away Crimea, Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula, that Russia illegally annexed in 2014.  

Trump set off speculation that Crimea may be up for grabs at the Helsinki meeting after he told reporters on June 29 that “we are going to have to see” if Crimea should be part of Russia. This was only days after he reportedly told world leaders that “Crimea is Russia because everyone there speaks Russian.” During a 2016 election rally, Trump stated that “Putin would not invade Ukraine” despite the fact that Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine have been occupied by regular Russian forces since 2014.  

One of the arguments Putin is likely to make is that Crimea has historically been part of Russia. Let’s check the facts. Crimea was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 when it was a part of the USSR. Sixty years later in February 2014 it was annexed by Russian military forces. Russian authorities organized a bogus “referendum” in March 2014 which began the process of incorporating it into the Russian Federation. Only a few countries recognized the “referendum,” and they don’t have sterling human rights records; the list includes Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and Afghanistan. The Obama administration immediately slapped sanctions on Russia after the referendum. 

Meanwhile, US policy on Crimea has been loud and consistent: Crimea is part of Ukraine and sanctions won’t be lifted until Russia leaves.

As president, Trump does have the authority to recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. But there will be serious consequences if he does. I see at least five.  

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When thousands of Ukrainian citizens and most journalists fled to safety, Stanislav Aseev, an aspiring young journalist from the Donbas decided to stay put. Surrounded by frequent shelling, rupturing grenades, flying rockets, worn by the psychological stress of death, destruction, and high unemployment, and bombarded by propaganda that shattered friendships and families, he put his life on the line to tell this story.

Aseev paid a high price. In June 2017, the separatists arrested him on trumped-up charges of espionage, tortured him, and refused to include him in the last big prisoner swap.

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If one took the punditry seriously, it would be easy to conclude that the Western liberal order is being unmade before our very eyes. Some worried that US President Donald Trump would destroy the North Atlantic Treaty Organization this week. He didn’t. Instead, he reaffirmed his commitment to it.

Yes, he undermined the credibility of the alliance and potentially created deep rifts among its members. He bashed Germany and told the Europeans and Canada that they need to pony up more dough. He was crass, and the United States’ image abroad took another hit. But NATO still stands.

Trump’s next big meeting is with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16. The president has an unexplained soft spot for the Russian strongman and wants to mend US-Russian relations badly. After last month’s flop in North Korea, Trump needs a win.  

On June 29, Trump told reporters that he might recognize Crimea as Russia’s. In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, which had been part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic since 1954 and then of an independent and sovereign Ukraine since 1991. The United States has maintained that Crimea belongs to Ukraine—full stop, and so has the European Union. The White House later walked back Trump’s statement and said that US policy has not changed.

Still, Kyiv remains understandably anxious. The nation of 44 million worries that Trump will bargain away Crimea for better US-Russian relations. Others fret that Trump will lift sanctions on Russia.

The truth is that Trump can’t do as much as people think he can. 

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“Glory to Ukraine!” saluted Domagoj Vida in a video message last week to his Ukrainian fans following Croatia’s victory over host Russia in the quarter finals of the World Cup. Vida, a Croatian defender who had played for five years with Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv, was pumped up from a heady goal in a dramatic victory over Russia on July 7.

It was natural that he would salute the millions of Ukrainian fans who had followed his exploits for five years in Kyiv. And it was normal that—as someone who had lived in Kyiv during the Maidan protests, the killing of more than one hundred protestors, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the ten thousand deaths it has brought—he would have great sympathy for Ukraine.

Shouting “Slava Ukraini!” or “Glory to Ukraine!” would hardly seem a matter for FIFA, the international football authority. But Vida’s utterance created a major international kerfuffle with FIFA initially threatening to disqualify the offending Croatian footballer and his mate, Ognjen Vukojevic, an assistant coach. Later, the Croatian team would dismiss Vukojevic, who, likewise had played for Ukraine’ s Dynamo club.

The FIFA kerfuffle revealed a string of paradoxes about the international community, football, money, power, and double standards.

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Europe faces a looming choice with serious geopolitical consequences. It can continue to receive its natural gas through Ukraine or bypass Ukraine altogether and receive its gas through Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Option one—preserving Ukraine’s gas transportation system—helps diversify fuel supplies and means that Europe’s gas supplies can be expanded if needed.

Option two means that Europe will become even more dependent on Russian gas. Russia will be able to block the supply of LNG from the United States. Eastern and a significant part of Central Europe will have no reliable gas source for at least five to seven years. Plus it signals that commercial interests trump the European Union’s values and principles.

What’s the likely outcome?

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Some in the West like to beat up on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and portray him as the chief obstacle to reform. However, if Poroshenko is holding the country back, how did parliament, which is governed by Poroshenko’s party and Popular Front, manage to adopt so many reforms in four short years?

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