The revival of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is the first major geopolitical challenge facing Donald Trump since taking office on January 20. But while the Russian lobbying of rockets and artillery into Ukraine has spurred the international community to condemn Russian aggression and reiterate its support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, a recent White House statement on the issue was markedly non-committal, failing to mention even once Russia by name.
“The United States is deeply concerned with the recent spike in violence in eastern Ukraine around Avdiivka-Yasynuvata,” read the statement. President Donald Trump has been “kept aware of developments” in Ukraine and the White House will “have further updates as we go on,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Wednesday, without elaborating, on the same day that Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO with deep business ties to Russia, was confirmed as US Secretary of State.
Since the weekend, more than 12 Ukrainian soldiers and at least 10 civilians have been killed in the fighting, which both sides have blamed on each other. Thousands have been left without access to water or electricity in below freezing temperatures, according to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine Neal Walker, who expressed serious concern by the “drastic deterioration” of the security situation in eastern Ukraine and its humanitarian implications.
Many locals are worried by Trump’s subdued stance, which stands in stark contrast to that taken previously by President Obama. Obama had sharply criticized Moscow for supporting and even ordering attacks by the Ukranian separatists, and for failing to fulfill its obligations under the 2015 peace accords signed in Minsk, Belarus. Obama temporarily deployed American and Germans tanks, along with thousands of other NATO troops, in NATO’s Baltic countries to reassure locals anxious about the prospect of Russian aggression.
Trump, on the other hand, has called NATO “obsolete” and suggested a new era of diplomacy between the US and Russia.
In Trump’s first official call to Putin on Saturday, the two leaders spoke for more than an hour about fighting international terrorism and strengthening cooperation between the two country after nearly three years of icy diplomatic ties. They spoke only in passing of the Ukraine situation where Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and sponsorship of a separatist war spurred broad American and European sanctions. While Trump had in the past suggested lifting those sanctions, the issue did not come up in the call, according to White House and Kremlin officials. Trump also did not refer to accusations that Russia had hacked the American elections.
Civilians on the ground are worried that the U.S., their most important ally, has abandoned them to the whims of Russian expansionist ambitions.
“After Trump spoke on the phone with Putin, the Russian president has realized the U.S. holds no political position regarding Ukraine. Taking advantage of the situation, the criminal Kremlin decided to aggravate the situation and to war in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine,” wrote a group in support of the Ukrainian military on the Russian version of Facebook.
On Twitter, Dina Fidarova, said that the Putin-Trump call showed how easy it will be for Putin to take advantage of Trump’s apparent lack of knowledge or interest in the nuances of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
телефоном:#путин: сними с меня санкции!#Трамп: а то что?
путин: Авдеевка замёрзнет!
Трамп: это где?
путин - Суркову: готовь Грады.
— Dina Fidarova (@DinaFidarova) 31 января 2017 г.
Putin: Lift the sanctions!
Trump: Or what?
Putin: I will attack Avdiivka [a rebel stronghold]!
Trump: Where is Avdiivka?
Putin to his aide: Prepare the grads!
By Shira Rubin and Tanya Bekker, Vocativ