In an escalation of conflicts in Eastern Europe, Russia fired on and seized three Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait two weeks ago. The event occurred despite a 2003 law which opened the Kerch Strait to both Russian and Ukrainian vessels. This comes after both the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the continuation of warfare in Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed troops. This is also one of the few times Russia’s military has directly attacked Ukraine.
In response, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed the alliance’s unwavering condemnation of Russian activities in Ukraine. Many western countries have followed suit. Britain and Canada have condemned Russia, and Germany and France are looking to try to mediate the conflict. Ukraine has even declared martial law for the next month, potentially to help draw further NATO attention to the crisis.
What is notable here is the lack of a firm American response. In fact, the White House’s immediate response to the developments in Europe were not to contest Russian action, but to undermine NATO’s function. Trump tweeted on Sunday: “Europe has to pay their fair share for Military Protection. The European Union, for many years, has taken advantage of us on Trade, and then they don’t live up to their Military commitment through NATO. Things must change fast!” Then, on Tuesday, the president made vague threats of cancelling upcoming meeting with Putin, but refrained from making a complete condemnation. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have denounced Russia’s actions in the region.
What does this mean for American foreign policy? Trump’s attention towards NATO contributions over actual conflict in the region show his unwavering commitment to harassing allies into serving the United States. His approach towards aggressive states (Russia in this case, but also Saudi Arabia in the case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi) is tepid to uncaring at best. This all reflects an inherited impulse from the business world to cut off as many commitments as possible and maintain a flexible posture. In a reality where ideology and ideals matter as much as geopolitics, and where betrayals are litigated by slain soldiers rather than lawyers, that business acumen doesn’t work. Commitment and trust are the keys to building international stability in an unstable balance of power.
The president’s weak response (or lack thereof) is consistent with his approach to other international crises. His ambivalence towards the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and his superficial cooperation with North Korea point towards this eviscerating foreign policy.
Domestically, the president is unlikely the receive very much pressure against these erratic policies. The Republican Senate will remain in lock-step with the president in order to try to pursue domestic policy, and while Democrat Eliot Engel takes leadership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, his focus will likely be on Trump’s personal relations to Russia. In the time between now and the election of a new president, continued turmoil within the United States will likely keep foreign policy outside of continuous spotlight. While specific events (i.e. the events in Saudi Arabia) may attract attention for a time, the structural damages to the United States’ diplomatic position will continue.
At this point, it is entirely up to Democrats to hold up the party’s position of “[standing] with our European allies and partners to deter Russian aggression.”