Two important events of January 2017 will affect, each in its own way, the formation of the political agenda in Ukraine – the World Economic Forum in Davos and the procedure for the transfer of presidential power in the United States. What is worth Ukraine’s attention in terms of Ukrainian-American relations and the future of anti-Russian sanctions? What aspects of partnership with the West could Ukraine offer?
The atmosphere of the 47th World Economic Forum in Davos could be described in one word as “uncertainty”, using the terminology of a British philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. This is probably due to the absence of leaders of the strongest world countries in the Forum, whose political support is crucial for Ukraine. In particular, Angela Merkel could not come in Davos, the U.S. was represented by members of the Obama administration, while the British Prime Minister Theresa May was focused on communicating the idea of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. The Forum participants discussed the risks of growing populism and extremism, and a return to protectionism and trade wars as Brexit consequences, as well as the unpredictable actions of the President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Anthony Scaramucci, President-elect Trump’s advisor and public liaison to government agencies and business, said Trump could be one of the last hopes for globalism.
Ukrainian news outlets were mistaken, spreading Russian ideas about the world’s “fatigue” from Ukraine and the loss of interest in Ukrainian affairs. The presence of the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Davos has been fully justified. Poroshenko fulfilled his important state mission – to keep the international community remembering Russian aggression against Ukraine. Federica Mogherini told Ukrainian journalists that the EU’s position on sanctions against Russia is consistent and independent. “The European Union’s decisions are not taken in Washington, but in Brussels, during meetings of all 28 EU Member States. Or, probably, 27 in the future. So, our decisions on sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea or in response to aggression in Ukraine will always be based on and linked to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements, and the situation in the east of Ukraine,” she claimed.
Today, this is the maximum that could be expected from the EU. Generally speaking, the problems discussed in Davos do not concern only one country – if, of course, this country is not the U.S.
It is the United States that is the focus of the world’s attention. Everyone is waiting for actions of the 45th U.S. President, Donald Trump, whose presidency willdeterminethe policy of Democrats. For the time being, Trump’s intentions can be read from the statements and reports by his protégés in the new administration.
Even at the stage of recruitment of new administration members, experts have tried to analyze the intentions of Donald Trump’s team. At hearings in the Senate, candidates for key positions stated, in one form or another, their commitment to the extension of sanctions. In particular, this opinion was shared by Rex Tillerson, accused of keeping close links with Russia after being awarded a high Russian Order. Only a few politicians were specific about the intentions the U.S. President-elect. Steven Mnuchin, a Treasury Secretary nominee, said:“The President-elect has made it very clear that he would only change those sanctions if he got, quote, a better deal and he would get something in return.” What he meant by a “better deal” is the lifting of sanctions in exchange fora reduction of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Yet, the American ruling class has a reliable algorithm of actions, proposed in due time by Republican Ronald Reagan and known as a“peace through strength” concept. To make the USSR disarm, he involved it in the arms race, which finally led to the weakeningof the Soviet Union and, in the long run, its disintegration. Today’s potential of Russia is also not so strong to sustain the arms race, so the agreement to reduce nuclear weaponshas no special meaning in terms of political benefitsfor the United States.
In this context, it is encouraging that General James N. Mattis, a Defense Secretary nominee at that time, has taken a tougher stance towards Russia than the one made public by Mr Trump during the election campaign, according to New York Times.
Trump’s wordsas President-elect took on greater importance. In his inauguration speech, he claimed: “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” As declared in Trump’s program, “the American military advantage should be unquestionable”.
The Kremlin constantly demands that the West “respect the Russian national interests”, and is trying to prove that it is impossible to defeat ISIS without the help of Russia. Yet, the destruction of an ancient amphitheater in Palmyra on the day of Trump’s inaugurationcould be regarded as evidence of the inability of Russia to influence the situation in the Middle East. Some members of Trump’s team support a tough stance on Russia, whereas others consider it expedient to launch a dialogue. They will compete for influence over the president’s policies in the coming months. Needless to say, the Kremlin counts on a reduction or lifting of sanctions.“The lifting of sanctions should certainly be on the U.S.-Russian agenda if we want to return to good relations. They [sanctions] should be eased or removed completely. Maybe not all, maybe only those not pertaining to Crimea,” Andrey Kostin, Russia’s VTB Bank President and Chairman, told Bloomberg in Davos. This ardent desire to get rid of sanctions makes it clear that they deal a blow to the Russian economy and political status of the Kremlin “masters”. Though the only proposal for the “exchange”, voiced by the Chairman of the Upper House of the Russian parliament, Valentina Matvienko, is that “Russia may cancel the law of Dima Yakovlev”… Americans are ready to adopt Russian children, but this is unlikely to be a “better deal”…
As is known, sanctions against Russia were introduced in 2014 in response to violations of the rules of international law – the illegal annexation of Crimea, the territory that belonged to Ukraine. The United States was the first to slap sanctions on Russia. A mechanical exchange of sanctions for Russia’s concessions in other areas is unlikely to be understood by the chambers of the U.S. Congress, experts, and the media.
It is expected that the U.S. role and position on Russian aggression against Ukraine will be the focus of attention of participants in the U.S.-Ukraine summit, the date of which, according to Petro Poroshenko, has already been agreed. This position will determinethe approach of the new Trump administration to the war in the east of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. This is a strong enough signal from the new U.S. leadership because on visiting Europe twice in 2016, Barak Obama has failed to meet with the Head of the Ukrainian state. The Kremlin expects Washington to increase pressure on Kyiv in the implementation of the Minsk deal, in the way it is understood by Moscow, and completely removes the issue of Crimea’s return from the agenda, whereas Kyiv has to present Western partners with its vision of what is going on. The summit will clear the air over the assessments of the situation and bilateral cooperation.
There is an understanding in Ukraine that our country is not and cannot be a top priority in the U.S. foreign policy. It is the Middle East that will obviously be in the spotlight of the United States’ foreign policy as Donald Trump promised to destroy ISIS and other terrorist threats. On the other hand, the American elite does not prioritize the establishment of relations with Russia whatsoever. It understands that a“reset” of relations with Putin would end like Obama’s attempt because a fruitful dialogue is impossible if there is no trust. And how many U.S. politicians trust Putin?
In this situation, Kyiv has to demonstrate that it is a reliable and predictable partner of the U.S. and the West in general. The U.S. support is always there where the U.S. capital is. Even if the current U.S. administration is not excited about Ukraine as a “showcase of democracy”, it would by all means defend American investment in our country. To attract foreign investment in Ukraine, it is necessary to create a favorable business climate, ensure the protection of property rights, and set out clear conduct of business rules. This would encourage Western businessmen to come here.
In general, the support for Ukraine in its confrontation with Russia on the part of the Trump administration is quite possible given the prevailing mood in Washington to follow the fundamental values of the free world. The more active any attempts to destroy these values are, the faster the Western societies come to understand the need to protect them. The main thing for official Kiev is to take practical steps towards the establishment of a rule-of-law state, capable of developing a rational action strategy, andcreating a competitive economy and a competitive politics.Only then Ukraine could count on political and resource support from the Western democracies, which, even in the times of uncertainty, continue to follow the rules, support friends, and respect the law.
By Ihor Nemchynov, for Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research
25 January 2017