In the past few days, renewed fighting has broken out in southeastern Ukraine. It’s Donald Trump’s second major foreign-policy test as president. (The first was last weekend’s U.S. Special Operations raid against al-Qaeda.)
This escalation is not surprising. For weeks, Ukrainian forces have been strengthening their positions around Russia’s separatist enclave in Ukraine. Fearful that Trump might accept Putin’s annexation of Ukrainian territory as part of some misconceived deal, Ukraine sought to show its teeth. The Russians, however, have not sat idle. In a clear escalation since Trump’s initial phone call with Putin, pro-Russian separatists and their Russian military allies have pushed five miles north of Donetsk city, toward the Ukraine-held city of Avdiivka.
The timing of Trump’s phone call is probably not coincidental. Perhaps Putin is escalating because he believes that Trump has not yet formulated a strategy for dealing with him. Always the opportunist, the Russian leader has no qualms about rolling the dice. But Putin’s escalation may not be intended as a test of Trump. He might have another goal.
Since June 2015, I’ve believed that Putin intends to carve out an area of southeastern Ukraine to include the city of Mariupol. Taking Mariupol would give Putin control of contiguous territory right down to the Sea of Azov. But Mariupol is also the endpoint of Ukraine’s North-South H-20 highway and a junction of southern Ukraine’s East-West E-58 highway.
Here’s where Avdiivka comes into play, because Avdiivka is a crossroads for the H-20 highway and central Ukraine’s East-West E-50 highway. These are the keys to Putin’s Ukrainian castle. Control the highways and you control the lines of communication. Control the lines of communication, and you control the battlespace. Control the battlespace and you have . . . control.
Putin might give up some of this territory in a final-status deal, but once he has it, he has a major bargaining chip. And with regard to Ukraine, he has Trump in his palm. Ukraine’s ability to launch an effective combined-arms offensive becomes much more complicated if it does not control arterial highways.
Trump must show Putin that he knows the Russian leader’s game. If he hesitates, Putin will seize the initiative and cast doubt on America’s new president.
Trump needs to act fast. He should immediately release a statement condemning the Russian incursions — preferably via Twitter. The 140 characters will throw Putin off balance, because it shows a directness that Obama always lacked. Second, Trump should explicitly warn Putin that if the Russians continue their offensive, he will arm the Ukrainian military with anti-tank missiles. The Russians will pay heed to such a threat because their armored supremacy is currently unchallenged. Third, Trump should use the credibility he has gained with the Sunni-Arab monarchies (who like his hard line on Iran) to pressure them to boost (or at least not cut) OPEC’s output. Putin needs oil revenue. We should make sure he doesn’t get it. Fourth, Trump should use all three of the previous actions to produce a better NATO deal with the E.U. A deal along the lines of: “I’ve stood up for European security, so you better start spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.”
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Ultimately, Trump must show Putin that he knows the Russian leader’s game. If he hesitates, Putin will seize the initiative and cast doubt on America’s new president. President Obama’s foreign-policy legacy is buried in the ruins of Aleppo; Trump’s future will quickly take shape in Ukraine.
Trump can be either the inexperienced president who called up the KGB, tried to make friends, and ended up losing an American ally and his own credibility. Or he can be the inexperienced president who tried to make friends, saw an adversary’s intention, and used American power for American interests.