During last week’s Helsinki press conference between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Associated Press reporter Jonathan Lemire asked Putin what Trump said about possibly recognizing the annexation of Crimea, the peninsular part of Ukraine that Putin illegally seized in 2014. In the lead-up to Helsinki as well as during his presidential campaign, Trump hinted that he might consider recognizing the annexation. At the G7 meeting last month in Quebec, Trump reportedly told fellow leaders that, since they speak Russian in Crimea, the territory really belongs to Russia anyway.
It was left to Putin in Helsinki to state Trump’s position: “[T]he posture of President Trump on Crimea is well known and he stands firmly by it. He continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex it.” Trump didn’t say a word about Ukraine, including Crimea, during the entire press conference.
Subsequently, we have learned from Russian authorities that Ukraine was discussed in the meeting between the two Presidents and in the wider meeting with advisers from both sides. On Thursday, before a gathering of his diplomatic corps, Putin as usual blamed Ukraine for the lack of progress in resolving the conflict—which he, Putin, started:
The reasons are the same as always: non-compliance of the Ukrainian authorities with their own commitments and refusal to settle the conflict peacefully.
Time and again, we see open disregard for the agreements, as well as an unwillingness to talk to their own people and a reliance on military scenarios. We believe that the Minsk Package of Measures provides fundamental grounds for a political settlement of this crisis.
In a closed session to the same audience, according to press reports, Putin also raised the idea of conducting a referendum in eastern Ukraine. A referendum on what, exactly, was not clear. For independence? Autonomy? Joining Russia?
A National Security Council spokesman dismissed the idea of a referendum, saying it would have “no legitimacy.” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the Trump Administration is “not considering supporting a referendum.” Let’s hope not.
Ukraine is an independent state that Putin invaded in 2014, starting with Crimea and continuing into the Donbas region. The United States should make it clear to Putin that he has no business pushing for another referendum there as he illegitimately did in Crimea.
Until the use of force by Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, Ukraine, for all its challenges, had been a peaceful country. There had been no indigenous separatist or secessionist movements. There were no threats to citizens, including Russian-speakers, living in Crimea. But that was the narrative fabricated by Russian officials and their propagandists after the Euro-Maidan Revolution and after Yanukovych fled for safe haven in Russia.
Nor did those living in eastern Ukraine face any danger after the revolution in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital—until, that is, Russian forces and mercenaries crossed the border to stir up phony “separatist” movements in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where such movements previously did not exist.
Through various means, Putin sought to destabilize Ukraine after its Euro-Maidan Revolution. Putin feared that a successful revolution in Ukraine, based on demands for an end to corruption and the freedom to join Euro-atlantic institutions, might trigger Russians to want the same thing. Thus, Putin decided he had to move quickly to stanch any domino effect.
The result, as the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled in November 2016, is “an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.” It is not a civil war.
As a result of Putin’s invasion and aggression, the death toll in Ukraine has exceeded 10,300. Putin bears responsibility for the murders of 298 people in the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which never would have happened had Putin not sent in forces and armed proxies in eastern Ukraine. Putin has failed to live up to a single commitment under two ceasefire accords, known as the Minsk agreements, from September 2014 and February 2015. He even denies that the Russian military plays any role at all in eastern Ukraine, despite massive evidence to the contrary.
After Putin violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the West imposed sanctions on Russia. It also launched negotiating tracks—a European one and a direct U.S.-Russian one—that have led nowhere, despite the heroic efforts of U.S. negotiators Victoria Nuland and Kurt Volker. The West should declare the Minsk agreements null and void. In place of them, Europe and the United States should maintain and even ramp up sanctions unless and until Russia withdraws all of its occupying forces from all of Ukraine, including Crimea. Putin will only change course if the West inflicts more pain through tougher sanctions and isolation.
The Trump Administration deserves credit for providing Ukraine with lethal military assistance, including anti-tank missiles, to help it defend itself against further Russian aggression, something President Obama refused to do. On Friday, the Pentagon announced it would provide an additional $200 million in security assistance to Ukraine for “training, equipment, and advisory efforts to build the defensive capacity of Ukraine’s forces.” That is laudable.
But Russian Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said Friday, according to Interfax, that “the Ukrainian issue was not at the center” of the Trump-Putin talks. That’s unfortunate.
Trump should have made it clear in Helsinki that until Putin respects Ukraine as a sovereign, independent state and withdraws all his forces and proxies from Ukrainian territory no normalization of relations with the United States is possible and no invitation to the White House will be extended. Even then, we still have the issues of Russian support for Assad in Syria and interference in our elections, among other matters, to address.
Instead, Putin was the only one who referenced Ukraine during the Helsinki press conference, and Trump has invited him to Washington this fall. We can only hope that Ukraine will not be thrown under the bus in the process.