By Guy Taylor and Ben Wolfgang
Russian President Vladimir Putin is bent on testing American resolve around the world, with a brazen attack on three Ukrainian ships last weekend marking just the latest in the former KGB spy’s grand strategy to measure the strength of U.S. alliances and challenge the international democratic order long backed by American military and economic might.
President Trump has previously imposed retaliatory measures to match the Kremlin’s provocations — by sanctioning Russian officials, sending U.S. anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, renouncing Cold War-era nuclear arms and bombing Moscow-backed mercenaries in Syria — but national security analysts say Mr. Putin’s aggression will intensify unless the White House and its allies take more serious action.
Moscow’s desire to continually challenge Washington, they say, stems from the Russian leader’s strongly held conviction that a ring of U.S.-aligned democracies in Ukraine, Georgia, Turkey and perhaps even Syria represents an effort to “contain” Moscowand presents an existential threat to his hold on power in the Kremlin.
“Everything for Vladimir Putin is a zero-sum game, and we are his main enemy,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former CIA Moscow station chief. “The Russians are continually probing us, and they’re going to keep going as far as they can until we push back in such a way that we deter them from taking even more aggressive action.”
It’s a sobering prospect nearly two years into the Trump presidency and a matter of heated discussion among senior administration officials advising Mr. Trump on how best to approach a much-anticipated meeting with Mr. Putin this weekend on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.
On Tuesday evening, Mr. Trump said he was undecided on whether to proceed with the G-20 meeting. He said he may cancel it in light of the latest developments in Ukraine as he awaits a full report on the developments from his national security team.
“That will be very determinative,” the president said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Maybe I won’t even have the meeting. … I don’t like that aggression. I don’t want that aggression at all.”
Mr. Poroshenko made his plea in an interview Tuesday with NBC News. U.S. lawmakers from both parties urged Mr. Trump to take a much harder line than he has in the past with Mr. Putin. Ukraine has adopted a temporary law instituting martial law to mobilize against the Russian threat.
Democrats particularly — but also some key Republicans — are calling on the president to avoid a repeat of the widely panned joint press conference he and Mr. Putin held last summer in Helsinki, where Mr. Trump waffled on the question of whether Russiahad meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Analysts say the 2016 meddling, which the U.S. intelligence community and the Republican-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have pinned on Moscow’s spy agencies, was a watershed moment of revanchist, post-Cold War Russian aggression that has marked Mr. Putin’s long tenure as Russia’s most powerful leader.
The aggression gained momentum during the Obama years, when Mr. Putin felt threatened by the U.S. president’s support for opposition activists in Russia and also emboldened to take advantage of his “lead from behind” foreign policy doctrine.
The number of Russian fighter jet, submarine and other military provocations designed to test U.S. and NATO response times from Alaska to the English Channel to Norway have increased over the past two years. So have Russian-backed cyberattacks on American allies around the globe.
Russia’s ongoing partnership with Iran to back the Bashar Assad regime in Syria and Moscow’s expanding export of the S-400 advance missile defense system are also part of an effort to drive a wedge between the U.S. and some of its key allies, including India and Turkey, a NATO member.
But it’s in Ukraine where Russia’s actions are most overt, according to analysts and former U.S. intelligence officials. In the former Soviet territory, Mr. Putin sees a Western-allied Kiev — and the prospect of European Union and even NATO membership — as a primary strategic threat to Russian security and a stalking horse for U.S. influence on his border.
Fear of democracy
Mr. Putin’s aggressive approach to Ukraine and other former Soviet states along his western border dates back more than a decade, beginning with its open backing of separatists in a brief, successful war with Georgia in 2008. It continued throughout the Obama administration, despite then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s infamous plan for a total “reset” of relations with the Kremlin.
A watershed moment of the post-Cold War era was Russia’s forced annexation of Crimea in 2014 — a move the Kremlin has sought to justify by arguing that the region has unbreakable cultural ties to Russia in the wake of the ouster of Russia-allied Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Despite the Kremlin’s denials, Russia is widely believed to be actively supporting pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, engaged in a grinding civil war that has left thousands dead.
While Crimea had subsided from the headlines, tensions came to roaring back Sunday when Russian ships fired on Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait, the narrow waterway that separates Crimea from the rest of Russia. While Ukrainian officials say their vessels were traveling in established international sea lanes, the Russian barrage injured six Ukrainian sailors who were then taken captive.
Analysts say the attack was, in Mr. Putin’s mind, a necessary step to see how far he could push the Trump administration without facing outright military retaliation from Washington. It was also, they say, a warning by the Russian leader to his own citizenry that the Kremlin will not tolerate any push for democracy and government transparency.
“What scares Vladimir Putin the most is for sure democracy, especially the prospect of democracy in the former Soviet Union,” said Mr. Hoffman. “Ukraine, a nation with a sizable Russian-speaking population and a goal of joining the EU and NATO, is perceived by Putin as an existential threat.”
Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit advocating democracy around the world, agreed. “The greatest threat to [Mr. Putin‘s] rule is a successful Ukrainian democracy,” Mr. Twining said in an interview Tuesday. “Ukraine is the greatest danger because Ukrainians share Russian culture, civilization and heritage.
“Putin’s great nightmare is that it happens at home,” said Mr. Twining. “Most countries would say that having successful, strong democracies on their borders would be a source of strength. The Russian calculation is the opposite. There’s something in Russian imperial thinking — which Putin embodies — which is [that] Russia has to control and subvert its neighbors and not allow them to be completely sovereign and make their own policy choices.”
So far, Moscow has shown no sign that it is willing to de-escalate the latest situation in Ukraine. Longtime Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on a visit to Paris that Moscow would not accept foreign mediators in the crisis and called on the U.S. and other Western countries to send a “strong signal” to Kiev to stop future “provocations.”
Instead, Russian authorities began prosecuting crew members of the seized Ukrainian ships on Tuesday, forcing them to appear on camera and confess to trespassing into Russian waters.
Ukrainian officials blasted the move and said Russia was exerting “psychological and physical pressure” on the captured sailors, whom they described as “prisoners of war,” The Associated Press reported. Ukraine’s state security service also revealed Tuesday that its intelligence officers were among the crew on Ukrainian naval ships seized by Russia.
‘Strike back hard’
U.S. reaction to Russian provocations in Ukraine to date has fallen short, analysts say.
“The United States condemns this aggressive Russian action,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a pointed statement Monday that did not offer any threats of retaliation. “We call on Russia to return to Ukraine its vessels and detained crew members, and to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters.”
Mr. Hoffman argued Tuesday that rhetoric and even sanctions won’t be enough to deter the Kremlin in the long run. “Sometimes you need to rap Vladimir Putin on the knuckles,” he said, suggesting that the administration should learn from the relative success of U.S. retaliation against Russian provocations toward American troops in Syria early this year.
More than 100 Russian mercenary troops believed to be operating in Syria with the Wagner Group — a company reportedly contracted by the Kremlin — were killed when U.S. bombs pounded their positions in February after the mercenaries tried to gain ground in an area sensitive to U.S. and allied forces.
“There are plenty of options we can pursue …,” Mr. Hoffman said. “We can increase our military and intelligence support to Ukraine. We can consider deploying a NATO contingent, [and] we can propose a U.N. peacekeeping role in the Black and Azov seas.
“We need, in my view, to take action with our allies and strike back hard. Otherwise, Russia is going to increase the intensity of their already aggressive military, economic and cyberattacks against Ukraine.”
Mr. Twinning offered a similar take. On a broader front, he said, Washington should do more to expose cronyism and corruption in the Putin government.
“Not just [with] sanctions, but exposing the corruption that’s at the heart of the Russian system,” he said. “The Russian system is predicated on control of natural resources for private ends, including those of Putin and his associates. I’ve never understood why we haven’t been more direct in taking that on.”