At the NATO Summit in Bucharest in 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin told US President George W. Bush horrible tales about Ukraine in the presence of other NATO leaders. He denied that Ukraine was a state. And he threatened that if Ukraine joined NATO, it would do so without Crimea and its eastern territories.
At the time, Ukraine was not accepted for the NATO Membership Action Plan. The country did not even manage to sign the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, which offered no prospects for membership. Yet Putin turned around and invaded Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine and over 10,000 people lost their lives in the ensuing war in Donbas. That war continues to this day.
Putin’s strategy towards Ukraine since the Bucharest Summit consists of destabilizing Ukraine at home and discrediting the country abroad. The upcoming meeting with Donald Trump will offer Putin yet another opportunity to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the American leader and to reinforce his narrative and his view of events of Ukraine that, frankly, has little in common with reality on the ground.
If Trump really wants to understand what’s going on in Ukraine, he might consider visiting Ukraine to find out for himself, rather than listening to Putin’s fairytales. The U.S. president might find out that being Russian-speaking in Ukraine doesn’t mean being “pro-Russia.” He might even be surprised to find out that at least half of the Ukrainian soldiers defending their country against Putin’s invasion in the Donbas region speak Russian in their trenches.
In Ukraine, this coming meeting between the US and Russian presidents is a source of concern, but not just because it will likely result in a new round of large-scale discreditation of Ukraine by Putin. There is another reason. Since the beginning of his attacks on Ukraine, it’s been clear that Putin is determined to settle “the Ukraine question” directly with his US counterpart. At first it was with Barack Obama. Now it’s with Donald Trump. That’s what makes it so important that the US president himself remain strong about the position that the US has maintained in the 18 month of his presidency.
Under Trump, the United States has demonstrated a firm position on containing Russia’s aggression. Sanctions against the Russian Federation have been extended and expanded. Lethal weapons have been provided to Ukraine that will be critical should Russia begin a new offensive against the country. Military cooperation that involves American officers training Ukraine’s servicemen is working successfully.
In 1994, Ukraine made a major contribution towards the security of America by giving up what was then the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. It included 165 nuclear missiles aimed directly at the United States. In return, Ukraine got the Budapest Memorandum with assurances of the country’s security. They turned out to have no legal force. Still, a president of the United States signed the document, so Ukraine expected at least political commitments from the US to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Ukraine doesn’t need Americans to defend its territory. Ukrainians have been doing that for more than four years at this point. Without even being a candidate for NATO membership, Ukraine is already spending 5 percent of gross domestic product on defense and security, with more than the 2 percent guideline for NATO members on defense. All we ask is that the U.S. honor the principles of international law and the values that made America great—and without which America cannot be made great again.
Meanwhile, Trump’s calls for Russia to be taken back into the ranks of the G7 and his ambiguous comments about where Crimea belongs have understandably worried Ukraine. Maybe the country isn’t being governed as effectively as it might be, maybe it’s not fighting corruption as hard as it might, but Ukraine has done nothing to deserve to have part of its territory taken over by another country.
There was never any evidence of a threat to the lives of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea or in the Donbas, although that’s what Russia claimed to justify “defending” these folks by invading and annexing Ukrainian territory. The threat to Russian speakers in Ukraine exists only in the propaganda on Russian TV screens. U.S. Special Envoy Kurt Volker got it right: the only place where Russian-speaking Ukrainians feel unsafe is where the Russian military is involved.
In fact, there’s plenty of documented evidence that those who disagree with the Kremlin line in Crimea have had their rights violated. Russia has arrested and jailed people like Crimean activist Volodymyr Balukh for five years simply because he flew the Ukrainian flag on his house! Crimean filmmaker Oleh Sentsov spoke against Russia’s occupation of Crimea and found himself sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for imaginary crimes and is now 60 days into his hunger strike. In fact, Russia is holding 72 Ukrainians hostage in Crimea and on its own territory.
The most dangerous move today would be to try another reboot with Russia, like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did: to start a dialog with Putin from a clean slate, to forget about Crimea, about Russian interference in the U.S. election, about Russian hacking attacks on America and its European allies. No one knows Putin the way we know Putin here in Ukraine. Forgiving Russia its many sins will not stop Putin: it will only convince him that he’s unstoppable and encourage him to do more of the same. Ukraine has learned this lesson the hard way on more than one occasion: our last president deliberately rejected closer relations with the West in 2013 in the hope of appeasing Putin. The only result was that Ukraine lost the 7 percent of its territory that is now occupied by Russia.
Trump has often accused his predecessor of being too soft, of simply giving Crimea away to Putin. Ukrainians were also not happy about Obama’s “reboot.” We’re hoping that Trump will show the right way to deal with Putin—and not be soft like Obama.
Putin can try to cut as many deals as he wants with Trump over Ukraine, but without Ukraine’s agreement, as one of the largest countries in Europe with a population of 42 million, no decision that goes against Ukraine’s interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity will stick. Any deal with Putin about Ukraine that does nothing but undermine the country’s statehood will not be a good or fair deal, Mr. Trump.