The shelling and body counts have resumed in eastern Ukraine. After a long stretch of relative quiet, Russian-backed separatists have stoked a surge of fighting that killed at least 36 people in the last week and a half – the worst violence there since 2015. We all know who the architect of this chaos is: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
America’s new ambassador to the United Nations, former S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, reacted with tough talk. We do want to better our relations with Russia, Haley said. “However, the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.”
The U.S. and the West should keep sanctions clamped onto the Kremlin, Haley added. Smart thinking. The separatists paint themselves as freedom fighters, but make no mistake – they are backed, armed and directed by Moscow. The U.S. and Europe have kept intact sanctions against Russia because of the Kremlin’s proxy war against Kiev’s pro-West government, and those sanctions have taken a bite out of the Russian economy.
And Haley’s boss, President Donald Trump – his approach to Russia? Kid gloves treatment for his bromance partner. Consider his remarks during an interview with Fox News’ Bill O'Reilly that aired Sunday. On the Kremlin’s latest moves in Ukraine: “ … we don’t really know exactly what that is.” Really? Listen to Haley and you hear exactly what “that” is: condemnable Russian aggression.
And there was this exchange: O'Reilly: “But he’s a killer, though. Putin’s a killer.” Trump: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
That’s nothing but a false equivalence – a logical fallacy – and Trump should know it. Having political opponents and journalists killed hasn’t been a page in the playbook of previous American presidents, but it’s on Page One in the Kremlin’s playbook.
As he lay dying in a London hospital bed in 2006, Kremlin opponent and former Russian intelligence agent Alexander Litvinenko fingered Putin as the mastermind of his poisoning with polonium-laced tea – an accusation that British authorities later said was on the mark. The list of felled opponents goes on: corruption-fighting lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. Now there are suspicions about what has happened to opposition politician and former journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, 35, gravely ill in a Moscow hospital with multiple organ failure. His family suspects Kara-Murza was poisoned, just as they did in 2015 when he faced similar symptoms.
Trump needs to rethink ties with his Kremlin comrade. And, he needs to heed Haley’s advice and keep the pressure up on Russia through sanctions.
Trump’s waffling tells Putin that Washington is fine with the former KGB agent’s brazen trampling over the sovereignty of Ukraine’s pro-West government. Emboldened, Putin could infiltrate other countries on Russia’s western flank that the Kremlin covets as a buffer to the West, NATO members like the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and other eastern European nations.
We don’t want to be alarmists here; nobody expects Putin to provoke a broad war. That said, a Russian incursion into a NATO member risks activation of NATO’s Article 5, which requires the entire alliance to defend any member against outside aggression. The West has enough crises on its hands – it doesn’t need a showdown with Russia.
The Kremlin’s motives for renewing conflict in eastern Ukraine aren’t clear – could Putin be testing Trump, seeing how far the fringe of his patience extends? That’s impossible to know, but Putin has a penchant for poking and prodding to see how Washington responds. Nevertheless, the White House’s tack should be unambiguous: Dial down talk of a Russian rapprochement – and keep the pressure on the Kremlin dialed up.