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.
The problem is that while these individuals make great sacrifices, the mission itself is compromised by Russia.
A recent investigative report by German broadcaster ARD has leveled new allegations about the role of the Russian observers in the mission; some of the Russian observers are spies with links to Russian military intelligence.
According to the ARD report, these Russian individuals have been gathering personal information about other monitors, including personal information like mobile phone numbers addresses, and blood types. True to form, they have also been making notes on potentially damaging or compromising issues, such as drinking habits, sexual activity, and financial issues.
The ARD report is consistent with conversations that UkraineAlert has had with former SMM observers who asked not to be named.
When asked by a journalist if there’s anything he holds Russia responsible for, Trump said, “I hold both countries responsible.” Both countries are not responsible for interfering in numerous elections, the downing of flight MH17 that killed 298 people, the illegal annexation of Crimea, the invasion and occupation of the Donbas, the invasion of Georgia, and the poisoning of a former KGB agent in Britain. It seems the president might need to brush up.
We asked our experts and smart Russia hands for their top three books or articles about Vladimir Putin and modern Russia.
Christian Caryl, The Washington Post and Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2000 to 2004:
Vladimir Sorokin, Day of the Oprichnik: A gloriously dark novel by Russia’s leading surrealist writer. In a not-too-distant future, a neo-tsarist Russia is run by a caste of secret policemen who are at once ultra-corrupt and hyper-nationalistic. Sound familiar? Precisely because it’s a satire, it captures the anomie of Putin’s Russia better than a host of more conventional books.
Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: A remarkably prescient book. Writing well before the Russian occupation of Crimea, Lucas mapped out the likely development of Putinism with eerie accuracy. Its conclusions remain highly relevant today.
First Person, Putin’s 2000 autobiography. Though it was intended as a PR project, this book is still one of the best guides to the man and his mentality. Among other things, it shows in detail how his career in the KGB shaped his mindset and his conception of Russia’s great power status.
Take yesterday as an example. It was not a good day for Ukraine.
A peaceful demonstration in Kyiv meant to highlight the country’s inability to prosecute criminals and apply justice blindly turned ugly when counter-demonstrators disrupted the proceedings and assaulted a prominent activist.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.