Friday, January 27, 2017
Trump Draws First Blood
The eyes of the free world and the former captive nations have been on the Oval Office ever since Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States.
The reason is that Trump alienated himself from many American voters by expressing tolerance for Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and threats against other countries. Trump also denied that Crimea was invaded, occupied and illegally annexed by Russia.
Trump singlehandedly overturned the seven-decade-long pro-captive nations stance of the Republican Party.
On the campaign trail, Trump revealed his acceptance of Putin by blatantly praising him, raising predictable disdain in Europe and the US. His support for the Russian leader held fast despite the shocked outcry by voters. Meanwhile, American intelligence and law enforcement officials’ announcement that they would look into contacts between Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn and a top Russian diplomat.
If that weren’t enough, Trump shocked Ukraine and Ukrainian Americans by saying that he would break ranks with European allies and cancel sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine if the Kremlin agreed to reduce its nuclear arms.
Behind the Kremlin walls, with the votes tabulated, Trump’s praise of Putin led Russian officials and USA watchers at many inauguration parties to publicly hope for warmer relations under Trump’s presidency. In other words they hoped that the US commander in chief will look the other way when Russia invades peaceful neighbors or violates human rights at home.
After his election, Trump began building a team that included officials who share his point of view and those who don’t.
Trump’s candidate for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the former top Mobil-Exxon executive with very close ties to Russia and Putin, was seen as typical of Trump’s benevolent view of Putin and tolerance for Russia’s imperial adventurism. The line in the sand was drawn early in the new President’s term as Democratic and Republican lawmakers sought to brow beat the opposing lineup with strongly-worded warnings.
Senators John McCain, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and others had led the charge for the GOP against Tillerson’s appointment while Sen. Charles Schumer and his colleagues did so on behalf of Democrats. Obviously, the new President wasn’t budging. He repeated his pledge that he would work to Putin, deal with him, and plan a future with him rather than without.
President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine and leaders of the other former captive nations expressed disquiet that they would be losing the vital and visible support of the United States at a time when Russia is waging a war in Ukraine and rattling its sabers in Eastern Europe.
The memory of Vice-President Joe Biden’s five trips to Ukraine and strong advocacy for the countries that freed themselves from Russia’s prison of nations is still fresh in the region’s capitals.
Throughout his tenure at the White House, Biden played the unofficial role of President Barak Obama’s special envoy to Ukraine, and since the 2016 election, he has worked to instill Ukraine’s importance on the new administration. Asked by reporters if he thought his efforts were successful, Biden responded only that “hope springs eternal.”
Indeed, the x-captive nations have been in that state of earnest hope for decades if not centuries.
Kyiv officials are worried that Trump could relegate their country to Russia’s sphere of influence, denying Ukraine’s Western aspirations. Ukrainian officials and citizens – as well as Ukrainian Americans – have long feared that the West could “sell out” Ukraine by forcing a bad peace. But no one suspected that unfaithfulness would come from Washington. And forcing a bad peace on Ukraine turned out not to be a far-fetched idea. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry this week protested after media reported that Kyiv would be excluded from US-Russia talks about the war and its future.
Ian Bateson, a freelance journalist, cited the following in The Huffington Post: “Commentators constantly refer to the Munich 1938 agreement, implying that the West will once again attempt to appease the aggressor,” Kostiantyn Fedorenko, a political analyst at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, told The World Post. “This, in their view, would be done via [the] lifting of US sanctions on Russia.”
In an op-ed in The New York Times, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin expressed hope that Trump would be a strong leader for Ukraine as well as for the United States. Poroshenko, in his remarks after meeting with Biden, said he looked forward to working with the Trump administration, and Ukrainian media reported that Ukrainian Ambassador to the US Valeriy Chaly said he also emphasized Ukraine’s importance in a conversation with Trump.
At last Saturday’s women’s marches in Washington, New York City and elsewhere, Ukrainian American women and their righteous brothers joined the protests by demanding that Putin withdraw Russian armies and mercenaries from Ukraine and that Washington under President Trump would continue supporting Ukraine.
On Monday, January 23, opposition to Trump’s pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian posture suddenly crumbled like a house of cards. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of Tillerson’s appointment as the secretary of state. All Republicans that had criticized Trump’s “reset” policies with Russia and Tillerson’s too-close-for-comfort relationship with Putin caved and supported his candidacy like obedient schoolchildren. On the other hand, all Democrats on the panel held fast and voted against him.
What is baffling about this battle of wills is that Tillerson’s views and testimony may not be firmly pro-Ukrainian, but he is also not toeing the line of his boss. Tillerson said he didn’t accept Rubio’s description of Putin as a war criminal but he did say Russia had no legitimate claim on Ukraine. He also said he would have provided Ukraine with defensive weapons and make a show of US and NATO border surveillance and intelligence-sharing. Tillerson was non-committal about lifting sanctions, preferring to say it would be better to maintain the status quo.
As for GOP mea culpa, McCain and Graham attempted to explain their betrayal of Ukrainian interests by jointly stating:
“After careful consideration, and much discussion with Mr. Tillerson, we have decided to support his nomination to be secretary of state. Though we still have concerns about his past dealings with the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin, we believe that Mr. Tillerson can be an effective advocate for US interests.
“Now more than ever, with America's friends growing more discouraged and our enemies growing more emboldened, we need a secretary of state who recognizes that our nation cannot succeed in the world by itself. We must strengthen our alliances and partnerships across the globe, and marshal them to defend our shared vision of world order. It is the American people more than anyone else who have benefited from this long tradition of US global leadership. The views that Mr. Tillerson has expressed, both privately and publicly during the confirmation process, give us confidence that he will be a champion for a strong and engaged role for America in the world.”
Rubio, who was considered a solid hold out against Tillerson, explained that his support of Tillerson’s selection focused not just on his qualifications, but also on his views about the role of democracy and human rights in shaping our foreign policy.
“I have no doubts about Mr. Tillerson’s qualifications and patriotism. He has an impressive record of leadership and the proven ability to manage a large and complex organization. What I focused on from the beginning is whether as secretary of state he will make the defense of liberty, democracy and human rights a priority,” Rubio said in a statement.
He was also encouraged by some of his other answers. “He acknowledged that Russia conducted a campaign of active measures designed to undermine our elections. He stated that Russia’s taking of Crimea was illegal and illegitimate. He affirmed that our NATO ‘Article V commitment is inviolable.’ He endorsed the Magnitsky Act. He accurately characterized the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a Russian invasion, and he supports providing defensive weapons to Ukraine,” Rubio said.
However, Rubio admitted, Tillerson’s answers on a number of other important questions were troubling. But that didn’t keep him from voting for his approval.
Tillerson did not share Rubio’s view that Putin should be called a war criminal and he did not condemn Russia’s repeated violations of the Minsk II agreement. He also noted Tillerson’s comment that he would support sanctions on Putin for meddling in US elections but only if they met the impossible condition that they not affect US businesses operating in Russia.
“Given the uncertainty that exists both at home and abroad about the direction of our foreign policy, it would be against our national interests to have this confirmation unnecessarily delayed or embroiled in controversy. Therefore, despite my reservations, I will support Mr. Tillerson’s nomination in committee and in the full Senate,” Rubio said.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), also an endorser of Tillerson, said in response to his questions Tillerson declared his support for “defensive lethal assistance to allow the Ukrainians to defend themselves, which would be a welcome change from the Obama administration position. Because of these commitments, I am pleased to support Mr. Tillerson’s nomination and I look forward to helping him implement the policies needed to fulfill them.”
Portman’s reference to Tillerson’s support for sending lethal weapons to Ukraine, a major form of military aid that would doubtlessly help Ukraine in its war with Russia, was abnormally omitted by the other lawmakers.
In voting against Tillerson, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said: “Finally, as I said at the hearing, at a time when Russia’s continuing aggression around the world and interference in our election must be at the top of America’s diplomatic agenda and of chief concern to our secretary of state, it is incredibly troublesome that Mr. Tillerson and President Trump had not discussed the specifics of their Russia policy.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) explained his negative vote by saying: “On Russia more broadly, I am concerned as to whether Mr. Tillerson would counsel President Trump to keep current sanctions in place – which includes leading our European allies in this most important of endeavors. He showed little interest in advancing the new Russia sanctions legislation I’ve introduced with Senator McCain and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Russia attacked us through cyber warfare and has committed even greater atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, and Eastern Europe. They must be held accountable and our bipartisan legislation is an important tool to do so.
“Strangely, he was quick to caution about easing sanctions on Cuba because it would benefit a repressive regime, but seemed indifferent to doing business with Russia knowing that that business helped finance their ongoing violations of international norms.”
Both yea and nay voting senators used the same characteristics of the candidate to substantiate their decisions to support or reject Tillerson’s appointment.
So what happened in the hearing room? There are more questions than there are answers. Is Tillerson a ringer for pro-Ukrainian advocates? Were the senators trying to enforce their will on a stubborn President? Do the x-captive nations have nothing to fear?
Judging by this administration’s track record, Ukrainians’ great expectations could still be gone with the wind. With the Cabinet divided between pro and anti-Ukrainian officials, critical administration decisions could be frozen when Putin orders his tanks to move west or worse Trump will dictate his pro-Putin point of view. What can the free world expect from the United States and its officials when ardent American supporters of the former captive nations succumb to the President’s pressure or charm and abandon their valiant positions on the barricades of freedom? America first is not a forceful solution to threat of global subjugation.
By drawing first blood, Trump, whose stated opinions on Russia are not clouded in mystery, has demonstrated that he has political stubbornness and power to force his will upon the Washington establishment. This does not bode well for the x-captive nations, which have hoped for a better destiny a quarter of a century after they regained their sovereign independence.
Freedom-loving Americans will have to mobilize their memberships and take this righteous campaign on the road to the offices of their elected officials, the Congress and White House just like they did defending human rights activists during the Soviet phase of Russian imperialism.
Now, with Trump in office, Russia certainly will not abandon its aggressive policies to rebuild the glory of mother Russia and repair the torn curtain. But without Washington’s unwavering support, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and the others will be left to arm and defend themselves against Russian imperialism.