180809 mainIn the summer of 2018, the security situation in the Euro-Atlantic area remained complicated. Russia’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine and Syria, and in its relations with the EU and the United States has continued to be closely watched by the global community. It is amidst this backdrop that several important events -- NATO Brussels Summit and US-Russia summit in Helsinki – took place.

 

Brussels’ perspective

 

One of the key events of the summer 2018 in Europe was the recent 29th NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium (July 11-12, 2018). Some call it very successful for Ukraine, while others are modest about its results and don’t see any breakthroughs achieved with regard to the Ukrainian issue. Be this as it may, the summit was important in that it reaffirmed NATO's consolidated, unwavering stance – the collective condemnation of Russian aggression, meaning the current sanctions and political restrictions on Russia are remaining in place.

 

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Yet notwithstanding this and the Alliance's in general positive perceptions of Kyiv’s membership aspirations, in practical terms, however, the Summit hasn’t brought Ukraine closer to NATO. The Alliance just admitted it is aware of Kyiv's intentions and that’s it. The rhetoric of the debate became totally different, however, when it came to Georgia. NATO unequivocally emphasized that the current relations with that country would eventually make it prepared for membership. In the Ukrainian context, this rhetoric is not heard yet. A certain amount of negativity, although it did not affect the Alliance’s attitude, was added by the actions of Hungary, which had taken such an obviously unfriendly move as to block the NATO-Ukraine Commission’s ministerial-level sessions in the run-up to the summit over Ukraine’s new education law affecting Hungarian-language schools in Carpathian Ukraine.

 

In the meanwhile, practical-level cooperation between Ukraine and the Alliance is gaining momentum, as exemplified by NATO Trust Fund programs for Ukraine being implemented on a broad range of subject areas, including most particularly the national security and defense sector.

 

A key outcome of the NATO Brussels Summit was that the Allies have agreed to increase their respective defense expenditures to a level “never seen before”. As stated by US President Donald Trump, the Allies had “really stepped up their commitment, stepped it up an additional 33 billion… People are paying money they never paid before”. He went on to note: “Only five of 29 countries were making their commitment and that’s now changed. The commitment was at 2 percent. Ultimately, that’ll be going up quite a bit higher than that”. The summit’s agenda and consensus decisions clearly identify Russia as a major, well prepared opponent, and signify an end to internal strife in the face of the common threats and challenges posed by Russia.

 

Trump-Putin Helsinki summit

 

Another major event of July 2018 was the US-Russia Summit in Helsinki (July 16). The public will likely not be made aware of its outcomes any time soon, but something that has leaked out of the conference buildings has been reviewed and assessed.

 

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Helsinki demonstrations before Trump-Putin Summit

 

At their joint press conference, Trump and Putin said they had discussed Syria, Ukraine, North Stream 2, bilateral relations and Russian election interference. Russian and US postures on these issues remained as they were, but Trump's comments on the Kremlin’s meddling in 2016 US presidential election once again shocked the expert community, even though something really important has been left behind the scenes. One thing that was really stunning was     Russian and US respective reactions to what happened at the Helsinki summit. The Kremlin appeared to have been more satisfied than disappointed with its results, while the reaction from the White House was rather moderate. This behavior normally has very unpredictable implications, not for the negotiators, but for third parties.

 

The top US official for Ukraine negotiations, Kurt Volker later after the event tried to subdue tensions to a degree by assuring that, even though Ukraine was not the highlight of the meeting, the US, while negotiating Donbas and Crimea in Helsinki, did not give away anything to Russia: “On all the issues that Ukrainians would care about, nothing was given away,” he said. “No handing over of gifts to Russia at Ukraine’s expense”. Beyond that, the US special envoy assured that, at the Helsinki summit, no moves had been taken to legitimize Russian annexation of Crimea or consider the possibility of an internationally supervised “referendum” in pro-Russia separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. "There was no move toward recognition of Russia's claimed annexation of Crimea. No support for a referendum. No movement toward Russia's position on a protection force for [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] monitors that would effectively divide the country," Volker said.

 

The US State Department later reaffirmed its unwavering position of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Thus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a statement released on July 25, said the United States would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and would continue to insist that Ukraine’s territorial integrity be restored. With the release of Pompeo’e Crimea statement, non-recognition of the Crimea annexation by Russia has thus become an official policy of the United States.

 

It is therefore apparent based on the results of the Helsinki Summit that the US policy on Crimea and Donbas remains unchanged. From Ukraine’s perspective, what is key about the Helsinki summit is that both sides seem to be going to stick to the policies they already have. As things stand now, agreeing on any Ukrainian deal is objectively impossible as both sides are well aware of their capabilities regarding Ukraine and well realize that neither has any fair chance to change the situation to its own benefit. Moreover, the United States and Russia will continue their competition for Ukraine, but there is no plausible strategy for victory either in Moscow or in Washington. As a result of the above considerations, a consensus appears having been reached among the expert community that both actors will most likely pursue an intermediate line of conduct in "deterring" each other. The United States and Russia will, on the one hand, symmetrically exchange hits in Ukraine, and will provide each other with small services as part of their roles in a grand geopolitical game on the other.

 

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There is another important aspect that should not be overlooked in the context of the US-Russia Helsinki summit. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, speaking to a joint press conference with his US counterpart, Donald Trump following their one-on-one meeting, effectively publicly admitted that Russia had had a role in the occupation of Crimea. In answering a question from an AP journalist, he said: "President Trump continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex Crimea. Our viewpoint is different. We held a referendum in strict compliance with the UN Charter and international law.  For us, Russia, this issue has been shut down [for good]”. The question is: on what grounds did the Kremlin hold a referendum in the territory of another sovereign State, and where in this situation is respect for international law?

 

It is yet to be seen how relations between the West and the Russian Federation will develop and what implications will be for Ukraine. There is a certain degree of support for Ukraine from the West, especially the USA, as well as an understanding of Russia's role in the occupation of Crimea and some areas of Donbas. But on the other hand, dubious geopolitical games are being played out, which can bring the situation into a stalemate trap that will be difficult and painful to get out of.

 

АNTON MIKHNENKO,

Editor-in-Chief,

«Ukrainian defense review» journal

 

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