Mike Pence met with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko while making his first trip to Europe as vice president, with his office saying he had “underscored U.S. support” for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and that the U.S. would continue to not recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. He also called on Russia to implement the Minsk protocol, a 2014 ceasefire deal between Ukraine, Russia, and two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine that have been supported by Russian armed forces—the U.S. was not a party to the Minsk protocol.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports on back-channel efforts at resolving the Ukrainian situation, involving President Trump’s personal lawyer, a business associate, Paul Manafort, and a Ukrainian legislator, Andrey Artemenko, who proposes Russian withdrawal from eastern Ukraine in exchange for a 50 or 100 year lease of Crimea to Russia. Poroshenko, who Artemenko accuses of corruption, says the lawmaker is not authorized to present “alternative peace plans.”
The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, a political agreement signed on to by Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom concerning Ukraine’s surrender of its Soviet era nuclear arsenal in exchange for commitments to its sovereignty and territorial integrity and protection from nuclear strike. China and France, the world’s other nuclear powers, signed separate understandings. The agreement, not a legal documented, is not interpreted to compel military action. Russia insisted it did not violate the terms because, it argued, the Ukrainian government, which replaced the pro-Russian one topped in a 2015 pro-Europe revolution, was not the same state with which it made a deal, a spurious argument particularly given that Russia assumed many of the treaty obligations of the Soviet Union and so is familiar with the concept of continuity in international law.
While the U.S. condemned Russia’s actions in 2015, and imposed limited sanctions, Russia oversaw a referendum in Crimea it said approved of the territory, which belonged to the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic until Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to the Ukrainian S.S.R. in the 1950s, being annexed by Russia, and Russian control over the region, which houses a Russian naval base, has remained since then.
Allegations over ties between President Trump’s associates, including Michael Flynn, who resigned as national security advisor after a controversy over what he said about sanctions in a call with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump took office, color any attempt at a de-escalation in tensions between Russia and the U.S. Yet the Flynn affair illustrates how improbable “collusion” between the Trump team and Russia is. In recent years, the U.S. has been caught spying on the communications of its allies—surely Russia knows its officials are spied on to. If Flynn, who was paid $40,000 to attend a Russia Today dinner, were an access point for the Kremlin into the White House, why would they blow their load prematurely on an exploratory call about sanctions? What difference would three weeks make?
2016 represented the third consecutive election where the American electorate rejected the anti-Russian candidate. During the 2008 election, Russia invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia, causing then Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), now an early leading critic of Trump and his foreign policy, to saber rattle about the danger Russia President Vladimir Putin posed to the U.S. order in Europe and the world. In 2012, Obama and Democrats mocked Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for identifying Russia as America’s number one geopolitical foe. John Kerry, who would become Obama’s second term secretary of state, joked that Romney’s understanding of Russia came from watching the Cold War-era Rocky IV. Obama said Romney was in a “Cold War mind warp.” Russia’s foreign policy after 2012 was not out-of-character compared to its foreign policy under Putin up to that point, yet Democrats’ view of Russia shifted radically, primarily because of accusations that Russia tried to “interfere” with or influence the U.S. election. Putin had previously accused Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who served as Obama’s first term secretary of state, of inciting protests and trying to interfere in Russian elections. Clinton described those allegations as a “personal beef” when blaming Russia for hacks of election-related emails from her campaign manager, John Podesta, a victim of a phishing whose password was “password,” as well as the Democratic National Committee, neither of which Russia has been positively proven to be behind, although the U.S. has accused it of such.
It’s unfortunate that such a saber-rattling distraction could endanger the space for a deal over Ukraine. Since the 2014 annexation, the U.S. has done nothing. It can continue to do so, and certainly should not change course because of partisan emotions about an election gone by. As I wrote in 2014, Mitt Romney got it half right on Russia—it was a geopolitical force that didn’t always align with the U.S. but it need not be a foe—but that Obama and Kerry probably got it all wrong.
At its core, Trump’s message about Russia has been to cooperate where possible, although particularly since the election he has stressed that there was no guarantee he and Putin would “get along” despite Trump’s repeated praise of the authoritarian. Since Flynn’s resignation, meanwhile, the Russian media, and political class, has started to turn from its early optimism about the Trump administration. The space for a deal may already be closing, but given deal-making was a large part of Trump’s sell on the campaign trail, it’s still possible.
A new referendum in Crimea, even if it were completely free and fair, would likely result in voters again choosing to join Russia, especially since that is effectively the case on the ground, but also because of its long historical ties. The geopolitical future of Ukraine, which sits on the crossroads of Russia and Europe, remains unclear, but is also not a U.S. national security concern. The U.S. obligation under the Budapest Memorandum is a limited one, and not one it was meant to bear alone. It could be resolved by, for example, Trump negotiating a cash payment from Russia to Ukraine (like the lease idea, but without kicking the can down the road 50 or 100 year). The European Union, which is running out of countries that can join, is probably still interested in an eventual Ukrainian application. But at a time when Europe’s leaders are rebuffing the most diplomatic efforts of the U.S. administration to get them to meet the NATO target of defense spending at 2 percent GDP, it ought to be clear that the days of the U.S. being the primary guarantor of security in Europe ought to come to an end.
Despite the election-related sour grapes and concerns about Russian “influence” (in a country with free speech and a free press, there will be a lot of “influences”—part of the marketplace of ideas in which democratic society thrives), U.S.-Russia disagreements should not be overcomplicated. Despite two years of inaction on the part of the U.S., coupled with a denial of the reality on the ground, it’s still possible for the U.S. to responsibly disengage from the broader political conflict over Ukraine while fulfilling its limited Budapest commitments. It’s supposed to be the art of the deal.