KIEV — Over the past five days, U.S. President Donald Trump has belittled NATO, insulted German Chancellor Angela Merkel, humiliated U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, disrespected the British queen and declared the European Union to be “a foe.”
Now, in a sycophantic meeting in Finland with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he has sold out my country.
In the preliminary on-camera meeting, Trump — the booming, coiffured leader of the free world — did not even mention Ukraine, even though it is a critical issue in relations between Russia and the West and the reason for sanctions against the regime in Moscow. Instead, he cozied up to a sly and ruthless dictator, whose proxy forces were killing Ukrainians even as he hosted the World Cup, saying he hopes they “end up having an extraordinary relationship.”
The damage on the surface may not have been as great as some had feared — but the ambiguous signal the meeting sends is troubling.
After the meeting, Putin was noticeably upbeat when he began their joint press conference. He said his “negotiations” with “Donald” had been a success and praised him for “preferring dialogue to confrontation.” There are no reasons for tensions, he declared.
For his part, the U.S. president declared that bilateral relations had been at an all-time low, but that has changed after this meeting and its “deeply productive dialogue.” Ominously, he again made no mention of Ukraine.
And while Putin mentioned Ukraine, suggesting the U.S. needs to persuade the government in Kiev to accept peace on Moscows terms, he said nothing about Russias aggression against Ukraine or its occupation of Crimea. Instead, he gave Trump a gift: a football from the recently concluded World Cup.
Trump seems desperate to be liked by a man whose worldview hinges on avenging the Soviet Unions collapse and who in his words and actions opposes everything the West stands for. That is very dangerous — and not just for Ukraine.
While Trump appears puzzled by the basic economic and geopolitical precepts of international diplomacy, Putins lifes aim is to divide and rule Europe, while remaking Russia into a superpower. Putins wants modern czardom. Trump will settle for reality TV stardom. Thats why the outcome of the Helsinki meeting is clear: the abandonment of five decades of transatlantic cooperation between Western Europe and the U.S. and, coming soon one can easily imagine, a green light on easing economic sanctions on Russia.
Seen from Kiev, this is highly perturbing. Any easing of sanctions before Moscow ceases its aggression against Ukraine will be felt strongly in Kiev. The vast majority of current sanctions were imposed by the West as a direct response to the annexation of Crimea.
In 1994, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum to cede its huge cache of Soviet nuclear arms in exchange for Western protection. Today, Ukraine has never been less secure — and nothing indicates American presidential concern about this matter.
Indeed, merely meeting Putin in Helsinki amounts to tacit admission that Americas principles are now negotiable. Any president willing to set aside five decades of transatlantic policy on a Faustian pact with a dictator during a hastily arranged trip places Ukraine at grave and egregious peril.
Its time to digest the painful truth. Putin has declared his hatred for the West, and for all that the West represents, in countless ways, contexts and occasions. Gender equality, independent institutions, pluralist democracy, equal rights for minorities and true checks on power are viewed by the Kremlin as frothy Western cottage-projects that are to be either derided or ignored with a wink and nudge.
Trump must understand that the Ukrainian question is not just a quarrel between neighbors. The Russia-Ukraine impasse is best understood by American scholar Samuel Huntingtons description of the “clash of civilizations” that can exist between ideologies that are diametrically opposed. Putins Russia represents a different set of values and model for civilization than that which Ukraine embodies. The Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Georgians and people of the Baltic countries are only too aware of this.
The Russian presidents avowed mission is — as he has either hinted or openly stated — the restoration of his country to its imperial splendor. His is a nostalgia for a time that never was, but it has proven sufficiently powerful to dictate Moscows post-communist policy. Putin has shown he will cleave apart the Caucasus and annex Ukraine — purely to pursue a vengeful dream.
When a diplomatic relationship shares no known point of consensus, and when those present do not even pretend to align on one single policy issue besides the issue of sanctions — its worth asking what exactly is going on.
Oleksandr Savchenko is a former Ukrainian deputy finance minister, deputy governor of the Bank of Ukraine, national executive director at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He is now president of the International Institute of Business in Kiev.
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