The Cable

Putin Testing Trump Early With Ukraine Attacks

After the two presidents spoke by phone this weekend, attacks on government-held territories in Ukraine have skyrocketed.

A tank is seen in the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka on February 1, 2017 as government forces and Russian-backed separatists exchanged mortar and rocket fire for a fourth day around the flashpoint eastern town of Avdiivka just north of the rebels' de facto capital Donetsk.
The death toll from the latest escalation in fighting in Ukraine rose to 19 on February 1 as international alarm rang out over the spike in bloodshed in the European Union's back yard.
 / AFP / Aleksey FILIPPOV        (Photo credit should read ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A tank is seen in the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka on February 1, 2017 as government forces and Russian-backed separatists exchanged mortar and rocket fire for a fourth day around the flashpoint eastern town of Avdiivka just north of the rebels' de facto capital Donetsk. The death toll from the latest escalation in fighting in Ukraine rose to 19 on February 1 as international alarm rang out over the spike in bloodshed in the European Union's back yard. / AFP / Aleksey FILIPPOV (Photo credit should read ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration is facing its first major test on the international stage as volleys of Russian artillery and rockets continue to pound Ukrainian forces in the country’s contested east, reigniting the frozen conflict and killing about a dozen Ukrainian soldiers since Sunday.

The barrages, along with renewed pushes by Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces near the government-held industrial town of Avdiyivka, spiked dramatically on Sunday. The day before, Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin held their first phone call, reportedly talking about forming a new alliance against the Islamic State and working together on a range of other issues.

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.

Ukrainian forces also appear to be advancing into the no-man’s land separating government-controlled territory from rebel-held areas, in what seems a bid to strengthen their bargaining position if they have to go back to the negotiating table again with a weaker hand.

Trump’s affinity for Russia, and his phone call Saturday with Putin, has stoked fear in Kiev and among NATO allies that Trump could strike a deal with Moscow that would mean less U.S. support for the Ukrainian government, and potentially give Russia a freer hand in its destabilization efforts there.

One U.S. defense official, speaking with Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity, said the Pentagon has long been anticipating an uptick in Russian aggression in Ukraine as Moscow tries to gauge “what they could accomplish” under the Trump administration.

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The new fighting, and reports Wednesday that a Ukrainian transport plane was struck by Russian ground fire, indicates that “the Russians are not ready to make any peaceful gestures on the ground,” said Alexander Vershbow, until late last year deputy secretary general of NATO.

The Kremlin, he said, “may be trying to test the new administration to see if they distance themselves from Kiev, and tell [Ukrainian president] Petro Poroshenko that he has to make the best deal with Russia, which of course would destroy him politically.”

Asked Wednesday if the administration views the renewed fighting as a direct challenge from Russia, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, “We’re keeping an eye on the situation in Ukraine.” Earlier, the State Department released a statement condemning the violation of the 2014 cease-fire in Ukraine that managed to avoid mentioning Russia at all.

The U.N. Security Council on Tuesday expressed its “grave concern” over the “dangerous deterioration” in eastern Ukraine and called for a halt to the violence by both sides.

The U.S. defense official said Moscow has little reason to implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement. “This is all very calculated to have this open, bleeding sore on Ukraine’s body politic that will allow [Russia] to manipulate the situation and the politics of the country, and thereby keep Ukraine in this post-Soviet kleptocratic orbit,” he said.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict was hard enough for Europe and the United States to confront when Europe was more unified, and transatlantic ties were strong.

Appearing before a House Armed Services panel Wednesday, former CIA Director David Petraeus testified that Putin understands very well “that while conventional aggression may occasionally enable Russia to grab a bit of land on its periphery, the real center of gravity is the political will of the major democratic powers to defend Euro-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the EU.”

But resurgent nationalism and growing divisions between Brussels and Washington make a unified response harder. The fighting is “a test of how well Washington and Europe will coordinate” when faced with a crisis, said Franklin Holcomb from the Institute for the Study of War.

A major point of contention are the sanctions that the United States and Europe slapped on Moscow for its 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. If Washington were to end its participation in the sanctions — as Trump has hinted — European resolve will likely crumble, handing a major diplomatic and economic win to Putin.

So far, some Trump administration officials are publicly presenting a business-as-usual line on Russia. On Monday, new U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley made her first round of calls and visits with U.N. colleagues, speaking with representatives from Israel, the U.K., France, and, notably, Ukraine. She reaffirmed U.S. “support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” according to a release from her office.

It’s not just Ukrainians who wonder about U.S. resolve in the face of a Russian challenge. American and German tanks — along with thousands of other NATO troops — are taking up positions in NATO’s Baltic countries to reassure locals nervous about the prospect of Russian aggression. The temporary deployments were planned during the Obama administration, but could now be cut back.

During the campaign, Trump harshly criticized U.S. troop deployments in Europe, saying that the Europeans should pay for their own defense. The U.S. rotation of 4,000 troops and 90 tanks to Eastern Europe is funded out of the $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative, a fund that could find itself in the crosshairs of Trump and his incoming budget director Mick Mulvaney, who wants to save money by slashing the Pentagon’s spending on overseas deployments.

If the fund there slashed, it would represent “a major breach of solidarity” with Europe, Vershbow said.

“The Russians would see that as a bonanza that they would try and exploit by convincing countries like Bulgaria and the Czech Republic that the U.S. couldn’t be counted on.”

Photo Credit: ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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