Transatlantic Take

Time for Trump to Stand Up to Putin After the Sea of Azov Attack

5 min read
Russia’s attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Azov Sea on Sunday was not only a serious military provocation but also a renewed violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.

Russia’s attack on Ukrainian naval vessels in the Azov Sea on Sunday was not only a serious military provocation but also a renewed violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law. It also impacts the security interests of the United States, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), including those member states on the Black Sea concerned about increased Russian aggression close to their shores. Over the coming days, the U.S. response will be telling.

President Donald Trump has an opportunity to advance U.S. interests, stand up to President Vladimir Putin, and support Ukraine fully. The Kremlin is betting that he will not hold his Russian counterpart accountable in a meaningful way, especially before the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires this weekend when they are expected to meet one-on-one. While diplomatic efforts by the United States and others should continue in order to ease tensions, a failure to respond immediately beyond statements that are without real consequences for Russia will be a signal that aggression and violation of international law once again pays dividends.

This incident is another reminder of the high-stakes game Russia is playing as it wages hybrid warfare against its neighbors. By extending its military action beyond eastern Ukraine into the Azov Sea, Russia has ignited a potentially dangerous escalation that will further inflame tensions not only between the two countries, but also with the West. It should stand down from additional military provocation, immediately release Ukrainian military personnel, return Ukrainian ships, and ensure the Kerch Strait shipping lanes are open.

It is critical for Ukraine’s allies and partners to stand with it, as they did at an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council on Monday. The United States, Europe, and the international community cannot afford to let Russia’s actions go unaddressed. A weak response would support the view of some in Russia (and elsewhere) that the illegal seizure of Crimea and Russian control of the Kerch Strait is now an internationally accepted fact. This would also only reinforce their narrative regarding Russia actions in Georgia where it has created false borders and repeatedly seized land.

The United States Must Step Up

President Trump needs to state clearly that Russia’s actions in the Azov Sea are unacceptable and that the United States will consider new sanctions, in coordination with its European allies, as a consequence. It must step up its security, political and economic support for Ukraine, building on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s November 16 meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin. Secretary Pompeo said then that Ukraine has "no greater friend than the US " in its struggle against "Russian aggression" and that the United States was ready to impose "consequences until Russia returns control of the Black Sea peninsula to Ukraine."

If the Trump administration does not act, Congress, which has already introduced measures to sanction Russia for its previous aggression, should move forward quickly and pass sanctions in the lame duck session. It could pass quickly two bipartisan pieces of relevant legislation — the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines Act and the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, both of which are under review. Members of Congress should also consider providing additional security and non-security resources to bolster Ukraine’s security and advance its democratic transformation.

In addition, President Trump should immediately cancel his meeting with President Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.  He has suggested that he may do so, but the Kremlin – unsurprisingly – said it has not received “any other information from our US counterparts” about a cancelation of the meeting. The timing of Russia’s latest military action a week before this was due to happen is an unequivocal slap in the face of the United States and other G20 members. Russia’s leader should be diplomatically, politically, and economically isolated, rather than welcomed in Buenos Aires. President Trump should also make it clear that Russia will not be invited to rejoin the G7 countries, as he proposed earlier this year.

No more mixed signals

Unfortunately, the Trump administration, and particularly the president, continues to send mixed signals about U.S. resolve in addressing Russian aggression. Unlike Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who issued a strong statement condemning Russia’s actions, the president’s initial statement suggests he believes Russia and Ukraine are equally responsible for the crisis. Coddling the Kremlin and other authoritarians, a signature Trump foreign policy move, is not in the U.S. interest; it weakens the country’s global standing and ability to address security challenges that threaten it and its allies.

Steely resolve, transatlantic solidarity, and U.S. leadership is needed now more than ever to address Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its continued malicious meddling globally. So far NATO and the EU have stood by the country, including at an extraordinary meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. NATO’s statement, endorsed by all members, expressed full support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. It called on Russia to ensure unhindered access to Ukrainian ports and allow freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. NATO and the United States should build on this and continue to provide support to Ukraine.  One further way they can do this by fulfilling their commitment to develop greater Black Sea cooperation with the country. In particular, strengthening its ability to counter and deter Russia’s hybrid warfare within a regional approach is critical to its security and economic and political stability. This is essential as Ukrainians take critical steps towards joining Euro Atlantic institutions. 

One proposal discussed at the NATO-Ukraine commission that the allies should embrace is a joint presence in the Black Sea. This would further bolster NATO’s efforts to strengthen Black Sea security. The Kremlin’s actions on Sunday was a wakeup call for the United States and NATO that they need to speed up cooperation with Ukraine to address Russia’s aggression that is spreading instability in the region.  

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