PUTIN'S PUPPET? Trump Team Silent As New Russian Aggression Tests Administration's Loyalties

PUTIN’S PUPPET? Trump Team Silent As New Russian Aggression Tests Administration’s Loyalties

Putin On The Blitz

Ukraine announced plans to evacuate the town of Avdiivka ahead of an apparent retreat at the front lines of renewed fighting between Russian-backed Eastern Ukrainian separatist forces and the Ukrainian military, the BBC reported Tuesday. The new and escalating skirmishes seemed to signal the collapse of a ceasefire deal that had held since early September. The renewed fighting was described as the heaviest in the area in a year since a pitched battle halted Ukraine’s attempt to retake territory captured by the pro-Putin partisans. Additionally, Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Stepan Poltorak claimed that Russia had fired on a Ukrainian military transport aircraft, according to the Moscow Times. According to Foreign Policy,

“The international body tasked with monitoring violations of the Minsk agreement reported at least 2,300 explosions from artillery, mortars and rocket fire on Sunday alone, the day after the Trump-Putin call. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said this was a sharp increase from the intermittent shelling that marks an ordinary day long the front, but that the fighting was so intense it could not properly keep count.”

This fighting comes as an early test for Donald Trump, America’s new president. Though there was a flurry of activity from the administration on Tuesday and Wednesday, there was no apparent response whatsoever to the fighting in Ukraine coming from Trump or any of his surrogates. This non-response came despite the administration’s provocative response to Iran. Iran has taken several steps in reaction to Trump’s “Muslim ban,” including banning American travelers, dumping US currency, and testing a ballistic missile. On Wednesday, the new National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, warned that the US was “officially putting Iran on notice.” Flynn walked away from the podium immediately after using that phrase, and did not explain what that meant.

Russia’s quickly resumed proxy actions in Ukraine and the new administration’s lack of a response deepen the most disturbing questions about the Trump administration. On Wednesday, the ranking Democrats of 6 House committees asked the Pentagon to provide information about a payment that Flynn received from Russia in 2015 after he spoke at an event attended by Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin where the two were photographed sitting together.

Ukraine is central to ongoing tension between Russia and the West. Over the course of the Barack Obama administration, the political situation in Ukraine swung wildly back and forth. A pro-Western Ukrainian government sought out a track toward accession into the European Union. Russia saw this as a threat to its zone of influence. In 2010, pro-Russian kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych came to power following a suspect election, and slammed the brakes on Ukraine’s European integration. He gained a loan from Russia and began cracking down on dissent and opposition. He was toppled from power in a popular democratic uprising that had tacit Western support in 2014. Soon after he fled the country, pro-Russian separatist forces backed by unidentified Russian special forces in a so-called “hybrid” invasion assaulted Eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Fighting has continued on and off ever since.

One of Yanukovych’s key advisers, Paul Manafort, was also a key adviser to Donald Trump before and during the campaign. He is one of several advisers with significant ties to Russia. During the 2016 Republican Convention, the Washington Post reported that Manafort was behind a puzzling effort to rewrite the GOP’s platform on Ukraine from supporting to opposing arming Ukraine in defense against Russia.

Days after Trump was inaugurated, Russia privatized a large share of its largest national oil company, Rosneft, and sold 19.5% of the company, worth about $10.2 billion, Reuters reported. Efforts have been made to identify the buyer. The money trail of the sale moves through several shell companies before disappearing into Swiss banks.

On Wednesday, Senate Republicans confirmed Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, as Secretary of State. Tillerson had previously signed an Arctic drilling deal with Russia, against the wishes of the State Department, receiving a Russian Order of Friendship medal from Vladimir Putin personally. Tillerson was the executive of a joint Exxon-Russia oil company registered in the Bahamas in the 1990s, The Guardian reported. After Russia invaded Ukraine, sanctions applied by the US against Russia killed Tillerson and Putin’s deal.

Trump’s election to the presidency was aided, in no small part, by a successful Russian cyber espionage and misinformation campaign. If, like Yanukovych, Trump was supported into the presidency in order to benefit Russian foreign policy, Russia’s early moves in Ukraine could be seen as a test of Putin’s deal with Trump. It is likely that Russia will attempt to take all of Ukraine, or at least force a client government on the country. For a retrenching and increasingly divided West, there may be a temptation to just take this loss on the chin, since Ukraine is not in the EU or NATO, but it borders Russia and has many Russian speakers in its east. That would be a mistake, and any European leaders who studied the road to World War II would be excruciatingly aware of that. If Putin encounters little resistance, and Trump continues sowing political discord in the US and between the US, Mexico, China, Iran and Western allies, Russia may test whether it can pull off another “hybrid” invasion in a NATO country, such as Latvia. That would be an extremely dangerous situation.

During the campaign, Trump said he would only defend NATO countries if they “pay what they’re supposed to be paying.” This has caused extraordinary alarm in Europe. Longstanding US allies are questioning America’s priorities and commitments under Trump, and Eastern European countries are beginning to train irregulars for guerrilla warfare in the event of a Russian invasion.

In a bipartisan way, Congress should begin investigating Trump and his advisers’ ties to Russia aggressively. Congress should also pressure the Trump administration to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression, as the Obama administration did with the support of both parties and US allies across Europe. If Trump refuses, that could be construed as a smoking gun. It would be far better to confront and address this question while fighting is in Ukraine than it would be if Russian special forces show up in a NATO country. That could quickly become the most dangerous geopolitical development since at least the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images