Perhaps inevitably, North Korea’s ballistic-missile test last Sunday was characterised by many analysts as Donald Trump’s first foreign-policy challenge, or at least the first not caused by his own blundering. But this is to overstate both the threat presented by Pyongyang, and the options available to the White House. There is no realistic scenario in which Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s dictator, launches a war against South Korea or Japan. And so long as he doesn’t cross that line, Washington has no influence over his behaviour. The only challenge Kim presents is to Trump’s claim as the planet’s most egotistical leader.
In reality the first foreign-policy crisis of the Trump presidency has been unfolding since the end of January, 7,000 km due West of Pyongyang. In Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his proxy militias have resumed in earnest their programme of destabilisation and annexation. The campaign had been paused during the US presidential election, and started up again within hours of Putin’s January 28 phone-call with Trump.
With his biggest American fan safely ensconced in the White House, Putin seems to have decided to return to his plans to expand Russia’s territorial outlines in the west, while pushing the envelope with his foes in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Violence flared up in the Donbas region of Ukraine, where Moscow’s proxies as well as regular Russian forces have been competing with the government in Kiev for control. Observers for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that the number of explosions in eastern Ukraine shot up from 420 on Jan. 26 to over 10,000 on Jan. 31. Attacks on civilian infrastructure by Russian and separatist forces killed 13 Ukrainian soldiers, and left the town of Avdiivka without electricity for a week, in the middle of the winter freeze.
How would the Trump administration respond? The first auguries were mixed. On Feb 2, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, slammed Russia for its continued occupation of the Crimean peninsula — snatched from Ukraine in 2014. “The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea,” said Haley. “Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”
But that same day, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a notification easing one of the sanctions the Obama administration put in place against Moscow’s Federal Security Service, better known by its Russian acronym, as the FSB. CNN quoted a top State Department official as saying it was a technical fix, to avoid “unintended consequences” of US government business with Russia. It was certainly not, as some American media outlets portrayed it, a peace offering by Trump to Putin — but the timing of the announcement was ill-judged. Ukrainians could be forgiven for seeing it as a sign that the new occupant of the White House didn’t much care if bits of their country were seized by his counterpart in the Kremlin.
The uncertainty about Washington’s intentions on sanctions against Russia continued on Feb 5, when Vice-President Mike Pence hinted that the US might consider them if Putin proved a valuable ally in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. But that same day, Trump himself spoke with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and promised to negotiate a peace between Kiev and Moscow.
It is hard to see Trump playing the honest broker in any such negotiations. Ukrainians would right be sceptical, given the President’s man-crush for Putin. Never mind the Ukrainians, many in the US intelligence community worry that Trump’s admiration for the Russian leader makes him unreliable — so much so, they are reported to be keeping some sensitive Russia-related information out of his briefings, for fear that he might blab about it in his next call with Putin.
But keeping Trump in the dark won’t help keep Russia at bay; Ukrainians need the American President to see the light. And quickly, too. Unlike the kabuki-theatre confrontation played out along the demilitarised zone between the Koreas, the prospect of an all-out war in eastern Ukraine, where over 10,000 people have been killed since 2014, is frighteningly real.
Why is it in American interests to protect Ukraine? There are many reasons — political, military and economic. But the simplest is this: the US owes Ukraine. Washington led the effort, after the fall of the Soviet Union, to persuade Kiev to give up its stockpile of nuclear weapons, in exchange for guarantees of protection from Russia. To President Barack Obama’s eternal shame, he betrayed Ukraine in 2014, allowing Russia to grab Crimea. Trump has an opportunity to redeem America’s honour, as well as to reassure other former Soviet states that Washington will not allow them to go the way of Crimea.
It will be hard for Trump to undo the damage done by Obama, and immediately restore Crimea to Ukraine: that will likely take years of difficult negotiations. But the President can immediately signal to Putin that Russia’s territorial expansion must stop right now, on pain of even harsher sanctions than Obama had imposed. He can demand that Moscow’s troops return to its own side of the border, and its surrogates give up their weapons and make peace with Kiev. If they don’t, the US and NATO should supply Ukraine the firepower it needs to protect itself. While talking tough with Putin, Trump must also pressure Poroshenko to give the Donbas separatists not only amnesty, but a fairer share of political power.
That’s what a real foreign-policy challenge looks like.