On January 23, 2016 Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko visited Estonia just two days after the inauguration of the 45th US president, Donald Trump – a known skeptic of NATO. While the timing of the two events was not related, the messages raised in Donald Trump’s inaugural address and his vision of the US foreign policy have alarmed Ukraine and its European allies.
Trump’s bid to reset relations with the Kremlin and his charge that NATO is “obsolete” send signals that cannot be ignored—not least because of their potential impact on Ukraine. Indeed, Ukraine is tired of waiting for a counterweight to Russia’s aggressive policies. Since 2014, when the country began to devote all its resources to defending its territorial integrity, Washington has provided more than $1.3 billion in assistance, when including the cost of training and equipment. Yet now the moment has come when political support is even more crucial for Ukraine than ever. While Estonia has actually given the highest per capita assistance to Ukraine (e.g. by rehabilitating wounded soldiers and offering training), it provides even more valuable support by keeping Ukraine firmly on the agenda both within NATO and the EU. Its upcoming EU presidency provides an even bigger chance to assist Ukraine in the Eastern Partnership framework.
There might be a growing trend to shut one’s eyes towards the Kremlin’s aggressive strategies in and beyond its neighborhood, but Tallinn has maintained a sharp, realistic perspective on the developments on its own border with Russia, in Ukraine, and across the alliance. Its recently elected president Kersti Kaljulaid, made several important statements while hosting her Ukrainian counterpart. First, the election of Donald Trump should not affect the US support of Ukraine. Second, the sanctions imposed over Russia for annexation of Crimea and fueling war in Eastern Ukraine have to remain until the Minsk accords are fully implemented. Third, Estonia supports prompt granting of an EU visa-free regime to Ukraine and the broader advancement of the Eastern Partnership.
The first two points underline the key strategic milestones not only for Ukraine but for the North Atlantic alliance in maintaining functional unity and restraining Russia from further actions. Trump’s election became worrisome news for NATO because it raised the question of whether Europe should itself take on the core responsibility for deterrence. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, Petro Poroshenko stressed that he remains hopeful about continued Ukraine-US cooperation, and fully expects the maintenance of transatlantic unity. The latter is crucial for Estonia, given that it is now benefiting from the increased presence of NATO troops. For his part, in his inaugural address Trump promised to break with his predecessor Barack Obama’s foreign policies, specifically by resetting his country’s relationship with “a leader, far more than our president [Obama] has been a leader”—a reset for which Ukraine is inconvenient. It seems that the struggle for the soul of US foreign policy has begun.
Still, the inconsistency of Trump’s messages might be worth more than a clear “no” for Ukraine. According to Trump, “If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?”. Ukraine is using all possible international platforms and meetings now to raise this awareness, as it is understandably worried; after all, Russia (specifically the praiseworthy nature of its leadership) was one of the few points on which Trump was consistent throughout his campaign. The visit to Estonia – an ally that shares both values and security threat perceptions with Ukraine – serves as a timely reminder that despite the messages voiced by the US president there is a number of partners ready to stand with Ukraine what, unfortunately, might deepen the division inside the alliance.
The second point raised by Estonia’s president touched upon an issue crucial for Ukraine: – maintaining sanctions. Even though they have been violated constantly, the Minsk agreements still remain the only format of keeping Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine’s territory.
Trump’s statements that he would be willing to remove sanctions on Russia if the Kremlin agreed to a mutual reduction in nuclear arms are not compatible with the EU’s common position. Despite the growing pressure from countries such as Italy and Hungary to lift existing sanctions imposed over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, they were still extended at the European Council meeting in December. More hawkish nations, led by the U.K., France and Germany, want new penalties over Russia’s intervention in Syria. In this debate, such a promise by the new US president (which would represent a break with the position of the Obama administration that removing sanctions should be linked to ending Russian military involvement in Ukraine, i.e., the reason sanctions were imposed in the first place) serves the purpose of creating information noise. This noise makes decision making more difficult for policymakers undermining the information value. The reaction of Kyiv (urging the new leader not to remove sanctions on Moscow) is clear, yet should be voiced broadly throughout both the alliance and the EU. Even if the immediate prospects of Trump being able to make a deal with Russia are far from certain due to opposition in Congress, populist messages from the new administration can— and already are doing—damage the sense of Allied unity.
The third point of Estonia’s president touched upon another entity that should deliver on its promises – the EU. This message, coming from the head of state of the EU member that will be holding the presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2017, was timely. The process of extending a visa-free regime to the Eastern Partnership countries (Ukraine, Georgia) has put the EU’s ability to reach consensus to the test. Since the carrot of visa-free travel has game-changing potential to bring Ukraine and other EaP countries out of Russia’s shadow, this puts political pressure on EU decision makers.
All in all, there are no easy solutions to deter Russia’s blunt policies in its neighborhood and beyond, while transatlantic unity can be hit hard due to the leadership change in the US along with the upcoming elections in many key EU countries. Yet what keeps hope high is a sober approach and effective bilateral cooperation among like-minded countries that share a realistic perspective on their common threats—like Estonia and Ukraine.