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Opinion Trump must not ‘give away’ the Azov Sea to Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin hands President Trump a World Cup soccer ball during a joint news conference after their summit in July in Helsinki. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

According to President Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea is all President Barack Obama’s fault. Trump has said Obama “lost” or “allowed Russia to take” or simply “gave away” Crimea to Putin in 2014. By Trump’s own logic, if Putin is able to steal control of the Azov Sea, it will be Trump’s own fault because it happened on his watch. But Trump has a chance to avoid that stain on his legacy.

Of course, Obama was not responsible for Putin’s aggression in 2014; Putin was responsible. The Obama administration can be rightly criticized for being slow to acknowledge that Russian “little green men” were taking over the Crimean peninsula, slow to impose costs on Moscow in response and reluctant to support the Ukrainian military as it fought further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Trump often brags that he has increased military support for Ukraine (which is true) and that he has sanctioned Russia more than Obama (true, albeit reluctantly). He likes to say “nobody has been tougher on Russia.” But none of that will matter if his administration allows a strategically important maritime area to be forcibly acquired by Putin in violation of international law.

“Russia’s actions are clearly illegal and derive from Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea, which the entire international community has rejected,” Kurt Volker, U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, told me in an interview from Germany. “Beyond that, there’s no circumstance in which the firing on Ukrainian vessels and the seizures of the sailors can be justified.”

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National security officials from various agencies met Tuesday to discuss options for a U.S. response. Volker said there’s no way to be sure why Putin decided to escalate in the Azov Sea this week, but increasing tensions between Russia and Ukraine were sure to boil over at some point and Putin has shown no desire yet to discuss a diplomatic resolution.

“What we are looking for is a way to deescalate the immediate crisis and try to pressure for negotiations to resume towards finding a political solution,” he said.

In an interview Tuesday with The Post, Trump suggested he might cancel his upcoming meeting with Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Argentina. But Trump also sought to shift responsibility to European countries to take concrete measures.

“I don’t like that aggression,” Trump said. “I don’t want that aggression at all. Absolutely. And by the way, Europe shouldn’t like that aggression. And Germany shouldn’t like that aggression.”

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday the Trump administration would like to see European countries “doing more to assist Ukraine,” and said that many European countries are not fully enforcing their existing sanctions on Russia related to Crimea.

Set aside that the Trump administration has not fully enforced congressionally mandated sanctions on Russia in a timely manner. What’s clear is that the current strategy of slowly increasing pressure while engaging in a fruitless diplomatic process with Russia is not working. Putin’s behavior is not changing. He is not getting the message.

That’s primarily because Trump is not delivering any clear message to Russia whatsoever. Outgoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have issued statements condemning the aggressive Russian action. Trump’s initial reaction refused to assign blame.

“We do not like what’s happening either way,” Trump said Monday. “And hopefully it will get straightened out.”

Rather than cancel his meeting with Putin, Trump should use it as an opportunity to tell Putin he can’t take over a strategic international maritime area by force. The lower-level diplomatic process is officially stalled. German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried and failed to persuade Putin to cooperate.

But Trump might have more success because Putin wants things from him. He told Vice President Pence in Singapore this month he wants to discuss Syria and nonproliferation with Trump. All Trump has to do is tell Putin to open the Kerch Strait, release the Ukrainian sailors and return the ships.

As we saw in the South China Sea, once a military power entrenches its claim to a large body of water, there’s little that the international community can do to reverse it. If Trump can’t make a deal that gets Russia to back down, the Azov Sea could be lost forever — and Trump will have nobody to blame but himself.