Transatlantic Take

Ukraine’s Helsinki Hangover

4 min read
Photo Credit: Official White House Photo / Andrea Hanks
WASHINGTON, DC — By any standard, President Trump’s meeting in Helsinki with Vladamir Putin was a diplomatic disaster that set back U.S. national interests and exposed America’s new Achilles heel, Trump, to Moscow and the world.

WASHINGTON, DC — By any standard, President Trump’s meeting in Helsinki with Vladamir Putin was a diplomatic disaster that set back U.S. national interests and exposed America’s new Achilles heel, Trump, to Moscow and the world.

The fallout from Helsinki is not only problematic for the United States. It is even more challenging for its partners, like Ukraine, that are in Moscow’s crosshairs and rely on Washington as their closest economic, security, and political partner. While some in Kyiv may have been confident before the Helsinki meeting that Trump would not sell them out, who in Ukraine is ready to bet their future on his support today? The populations in Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Vilnius do not feel more secure after the Helsinki meeting.

Ukrainians have every reason to be concerned that their future in the West was being bartered away by Trump and Putin at Helsinki. Did the two leaders agree on new spheres of U.S. and Russian influence impacting Ukraine’s future? This could explain why Trump did not push back at the summit against Russian aggression in Ukraine. His silence on Ukraine at his press conference with Putin was deafening. His failure to address Russia’s ongoing hybrid warfare head on could be interpreted as green light by Moscow.  

There are other uncertainties for Ukraine coming out of Helsinki. Did Trump agree to recognize Russia’s claims on Crimea? He reportedly offered the simplistic view at recent G7 meeting that “everyone there speaks Russian.” There are reports suggesting Putin floated a new deal on Ukraine and may have agreed to other “security agreements” with Trump.

Trump may have also done a 180 degree turn on Nord Stream 2 at Helsinki that should leave Ukrainians  concerned about the U.S. continuing to oppose the pipeline’s completion. Trump expressed opposition to Nord Stream 2 at the recent NATO summit, including with NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg. However a few days later, after his meeting with Putin, his position shifted. Confusingly, he offered “best wishes” on completion of the project at his Helsinki press conference with Putin.

Given that Putin has used energy as weapon against Ukraine and others over the past decade it is hard to believe that the United States would take Putin at his word that he will “keep the transit route of natural gas to Europe via Ukraine.” Trump’s softening position on Nord Stream 2 at Helsinki will impact efforts by U.S. officials to oppose this project and support Ukraine’s energy security.

Trump’s post-Helsinki questioning of Montenegro’s NATO membership is also a red flag for Ukraine, as well as Georgia and other Alliance aspirants. Instead of castigating Russia for being the aggressor in 2016 in Montenegro, attempting to topple the government, Trump was critical of Montenegrins. He called them “very aggressive” and suggested they “could cause World War III.” Is it possible Trump will similarly flip on Ukraine and blame them for Russian aggression in 2014?

President Trump and his administration need to act quickly to reinforce U.S. foreign policy positions with partners, including Ukraine, who have a deep Helsinki hangover. This includes recommitting the U.S. to Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the Minsk agreements. There should be no concessions to Moscow on sanctions in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, military action in Eastern Ukraine, and interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Finally, with Trump’s shift on Nord Stream 2, the United States should restate its opposition to this project that they have articulated is damaging for Ukraine and Europe’s energy security.

Moreover, the United States needs to be forthright about its continued commitment to Ukraine’s Western integration and future in NATO. Trump’s questioning of Montenegrin NATO membership creates doubt about the U.S. commitment to NATO’s longstanding “open door” policy for Alliance aspirant nations, including Ukraine. The United States should reaffirm its commitment to NATO’s recent Brussels Summit Declaration that reinforces Ukraine as essential to “Euro-Atlantic security and reaffirms the Alliance commitment to Ukraine’s future alliance membership.”

As Trump waivers on Ukraine, U.S. Congressional support for Ukraine is needed. Several Senators are urging Trump to come clean about what was discussed in Helsinki, including Ukraine. A Senate hearing this week with Secretary of State Pompeo did not tamp down mounting congressional concerns about Helsinki outcomes. Congress has stepped in as the chief advocate for stronger U.S.–Ukraine relations in Washington, including increasing assistance and supporting defensive weapons and security cooperation. Legislators have also staunchly supported and are planning to introduce fresh Russia-related sanctions. Congress should be prepared to be a bulwark if Trump downgrades U.S. support for Ukraine or seeks to soften Russia sanctions.

President Trump appears to be chasing pyrrhic victories in Helsinki that could harm U.S. interests and have serious ramifications for Ukraine and other countries. The Ukrainians, like other U.S. partners, need to recalculate their policies and react to reports of what may have been agreed to by the two leaders and prepare for a possible second Trump–Putin. Kyiv needs to discern the real depth of U.S. intentions, including Washington’s support for its NATO integration. And U.S. legislators must lead the charge to ensure that Moscow understands that Washington unequivocally opposes Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere.