Ottawa Citizen | 15Feb2017 | Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

Donald Trump's mixed signals on Russia policy

Last week, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chewed out Russia for escalating attacks on Ukraine. There was a general sigh of relief from those concerned with President Donald Trump’s cosying-up to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Does her statement represent the president’s new foreign policy vis--vis Russia?

Unfortunately, the signs continue to be unclear.

In the telephone conversation that followed the UN statement, for instance, Trump told Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko: “We will work with Ukraine, Russia and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border.”

But there is no border dispute: There is Russia’s occupation of Crimea -- Ukraine’s sovereign territory -- and some 10,000 dead because of the Kremlin’s war in the Donbas. The White House readout of the conversation made no mention of Russia’s aggression nor of maintaining sanctions.

Trump’s ongoing failure to condemn Russia is significant. In a Fox News interview, he again admired Putin and failed to agree that he’s a “killer.” Then, Trump shamelessly threw America in with the bully.

America’s current policy chaos is a warning to Ukraine: the leader of the free world could remove economic sanctions, the only viable means of dealing with Russia’s brazen disregard for international law. Other countries may follow.

In fact, this lack of clarity has existed since the American presidential election, leading European Union countries to toss sanctions around -- to keep or not to keep? -- like a hot potato. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has raised the possibility of readmitting Russia even though it has failed to meet conditions of re-instatement: withdrawal from Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Even Canada, with its special relations with Ukraine designation, was wondering, whether in the interest of “good relations” with Russia it should cancel its military training program there.

All this was sweet music to Putin. Emboldened yet again, he whacked Avdiivka, an important industrial town, producing coke for Ukraine’s lucrative steel industry.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported that the shelling count was more than 8,000 in a 24-hour period. Most came from forbidden artillery located in Russia-held Donetsk. The bombed infrastructure deprived 20,000 residents of shelter, electricity, water and heat as the temperature hovered near -20 C.

Russia’s mendacity was vicious. It fired “on the temporary heating stations … and on school No. 2, which was used as a humanitarian aid collection point,” reported a Facebook post on Feb. 3, 2017. The terror has claimed more than 30 lives. Ukrainians were receiving gruesome cell messages: “Your bodies will be found after the snow melts.”

The targeting of civilians constitutes a war crime, claimed Ukraine, which asked other governments to step up pressure on Russia to adhere to the Minsk accords it signed to maintain peace.

While the apocalypse in Avdiivka was raging, the leader of the free world was “following the situation.” The White House failed to denounce Russia; its use of illegal artillery; condemn the deaths and total obliteration of Avdiivka, and the near 10,000 dead in the two years that the Russians have been breaking international law and waging a war in Ukraine. Instead, there was a scary encouragement to Russia: a presidential executive order modified U.S. sanctions against Russia’s security.

By then, sensible Republicans had had enough.

Sen. John McCain wrote an angry letter to the president, pointing out that the escalation in Ukraine came the day after his call to Putin. The senator warned that Russia’s aggression was not only about Ukraine: Putin is testing “you as commander-in-chief” and warned of “lasting consequences.” The letter asked that the U.S. provide lethal weapons to allow Ukraine to defend itself, and to increase sanctions.

Haley followed with a forceful statement denouncing the “dire situation” in Ukraine which “demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.” She stressed that the violence must stop as must the occupation of Crimea. Until such time, she concluded “the sanctions against Russia will continue.”

Brave words of a neophyte? A diversionary tactic to keep critics of the president’s pro-Russia policy at bay? The emergence of a thought-out foreign policy?

It is too soon to tell, as more pro- and anti-Russian statements swirl about. Meanwhile, people are killed, lives are ruined and Putin’s despotism is making him one of the wealthiest men in the world.

And Trump? He continues to play nice with Russia as if under contract to avoid public criticism of Putin. In so doing, America’s president supports a leading global terrorist state.

He mocks the pre-eminence of international law, peace and security. To his country’s detriment, he undermines America’s moral authority, leadership and its greatness.

The big question is why?

Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, former senior policy adviser for the government of Canada and president of a Canadian consulting firm, writes commentary on political issues.