Few think the savage upsurge in fighting in Ukraine following a telephone chat between US President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin is a coincidence.
Many in Ukraine have been fearful that Trump, who during the presidential election campaign repeatedly praised the Russian dictator, will ditch crucial US support for Ukraine in return for improved relations with Moscow.
Within hours of Trump and Putin talking last Saturday fighting intensified in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas confrontation zone, where Ukrainian troops face pro-Moscow separatists armed and backed by Russian regulars, to its worst since 2015. At least a dozen soldiers have been killed on each side and many more, including civilians, wounded.
The epicenter of the fighting is around the Ukrainian government-held town of Avdiyivka, a few miles from the rebel capital of Donetsk. Intense artillery and missile attacks by the separatists have knocked out electricity and water supplies. Thousands of civilians, left without heat in freezing conditions and rapidly running out of food, face evacuation.
Predictably the Russians blame Ukrainians for the increased fighting. If only Ukrainians did not defend their nation but rolled over and surrendered to Russia there would not be any fighting. Quite right. Bad obstinate Ukrainians!
The likeliest explanation is that Putin is testing how far he can ramp up the conflict in Donbas without triggering US criticism.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Possibly he has misunderstood the affectionate signals from Trump and believes he already has Washington’s tacit blessing to do what he likes in Russia’s “backyard”. Or – the nastiest explanation – he really has received some back-channel assurance from Trump that America will no longer impede Putin’s ambitions to revive a new Russian empire.
If Trump had explicitly warned Moscow against intensifying the conflict in Ukraine that almost certainly would have prevented this escalation of the violence, as Putin wouldn’t want to snuff out a promising relationship just as it was beginning.
Trump wouldn’t even have had to introduce a brittle tone by warning Putin off directly during their telephone chat. He could have sent the message confidentially through diplomatic channels. But it doesn’t look like he did do that.
Failing to warn Putin that aggressive actions would harm attempts to improve relations between the US and Russia continues the pattern of Trump’s fond posture towards the Russian dictator throughout the presidential election campaign. It conforms with Trump’s repeated public praise of Putin; shrugging off Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and war crimes in Syria.
Trump has encouraged Putin by mooting he might accept Russia’s armed annexation of Crimea and is considering lifting the sanctions imposed on the Kremlin for shattering long-embedded international rules forbidding border changes by invasion and slaughter.
While American intelligence agencies concluded that Russian security services tried to influence the US elections, Trump has dismissed the overwhelming evidence and instead stridently defended Putin. He even compared CIA methods to those used by there Nazis.
Trump accused two senators from his own Republican party, who are outspokenly critical of Putin, of wanting to start World War Three.
So it’s only natural that Putin assumes Trump is on his side. The new American president has already handed Putin a great propaganda triumph. The sub-text message the Kremlin is spreading to the Russians and other suckers is that Putin’s all-seeing, strategic genius indeed was in full play during the US elections and the world is changing in his favor.
Trump has remained silent about the escalation of the conflict. That further bolsters Putin’s belief that Trump will fall in with Moscow’s distorted, alternate reality, portrayal of the conflict. Particularly that it’s all Ukraine’s fault and that Russia did not create the “separatists” trying to dismember Ukraine and is not propping them up with its regular forces.
The fact that the US has not firmly pinned the blame for the current increased killing where it belongs – on Putin – augurs ill. I’m not sure whether the State Department has already been reduced to mumbling lame statements about “all sides should refrain from…” but no wonder that Ukrainians are scared that Trump is about to sell their country down the Volga.
Trump seemingly would justify discarding Ukraine to its fate in Moscow’s “sphere of influence” as a “great” deal that would ally Russia to America in a war on ISIS. But if Russia really wanted to make war on ISIS instead of bombing women and children in Syria, it could have been doing that already without being anyone’s ally. However, it hasn’t.
So if Trump’s motive for buddying up to Putin isn’t to gain Russia’s alliance in a “war on terror” what is it?
One motive that has always driven Trump is greed. And a clue to his infatuation with Putin could be the boast of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, last year that Russian “investors” were “pouring” money into Trump’s businesses.
This is one of the allegations that US intelligence agencies are quietly continuing to pursue about their president’s opaque dealings in Russia.
This week Trump seemed to heap more insult on US intelligence agencies with an executive order lifting some sanctions on Russia’s FSB secret police to do with their acquiring internet technology.
At the Kremlin and the Lubyanka they must be laughing loudly. But perhaps this latest insult will cause the CIA and others to approach exploring Trump’s past with added relish.