Wednesday, July 18, 2018

U.S. Risks Legitimizing Russian Subversion in Ukraine

By Jack Ulses

Key Takeaway: The Helsinki Summit likely emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to intensify his global subversive campaigns. Russia has already set conditions to consolidate its gains in Ukraine and may be preparing to annex portions of eastern Ukraine as it did separatist regions of Georgia. The U.S. and its allies must reaffirm their commitments to Ukraine's sovereignty to deter further Russian aggression.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely emerged emboldened from his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump did not press Putin on his destabilizing activities including the illegal annexation of Crimea and the interventions in eastern Ukraine and Syria. The Kremlin will likely interpret the lack of a firm response to its aggression as an implicit acceptance of its continued subversive campaigns in Ukraine.

Russia had already taken action prior to the summit to consolidate its gains in Ukraine. Russia took the first steps towards integrating separatist republics in eastern Ukraine into Russia. Russian Oryol Oblast Governor Andrey Klychkov signed a declaration to create a joint commission to strengthen trade and cultural ties with the separatist Donbas in eastern Ukraine on July 11. The decree mirrors the gradual model of integration Russia has used with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. The Russian Federal Security Service has also increased its intimidation and detention of Ukrainian ships in the contested Sea of Azov in recent weeks. Putin likely intends for these low-visibility measures to set conditions for the integration of eastern Ukraine into Russia.

The U.S. must reinforce its commitment to Ukraine. Putin will likely exploit the meeting and his consequent boost in global stature as an opportunity to intensify his subversion campaign in Ukraine. Putin largely kept his activity below the threshold of international condemnation ahead of his meeting with Trump. The U.S. and its allies must publicly condemn Russia's continued interference in Ukraine to raise the costs of further subversive activity by the Kremlin. The U.S. must also continue its support for the eventual accession of Ukraine to NATO to demonstrate its commitment to Ukrainian independence and prevent Russia from regaining control of the former Soviet Union.