The statement continued: “The United States condemns this aggressive Russian action. 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.”
While urging both countries to resolve the dispute (which was begun entirely by Russia), Pompeo concluded: “The United States supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters, as well as the right of its vessels to traverse international waters. As stated in our Crimea Declaration, the United States rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea.”
Unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to take these rhetorical flourishes very seriously. The dog that didn’t bark — Trump — suggests the president remains unable, for whatever reason, to personally and directly rebuke Russia. (“We do not like what’s happening, either way,” as Trump put it, isn’t going to suffice.)
Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, made that precise point in a blistering written statement:
The Kremlin must immediately return the seized Ukrainian vessels and cease any future actions that threaten the freedom of passage through the Kerch Strait. [Sunday’s] events show that the Kremlin remains sharply intent on weakening Ukraine’s security and democratic trajectory. . . .At this precarious time, the U.S. cannot afford a weak performance by President Trump at the G20, like we saw in Helsinki. Mr. President, this is your opportunity to finally show American leadership in defense of our principles and our close allies across Europe.
Menendez urged his colleagues to pass the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, which would authorize additional sanctions and support for the United States’ NATO allies.
Trump came into office decrying U.S. weakness in the world and the lack of respect from foes. He has now doubled down on the very sort of behavior Republicans used to criticize — picking fights with allies, kowtowing to aggressors and demonstrating disdain for international leadership.
In the case of Russia, Trump’s peculiar submissiveness seems to have only emboldened Putin. “The President of the United States is almost certainly compromised by Russia. Since he entered political life, Trump has been submissive to Putin even though it hurts him politically,” says Max Bergmann, the director of the Moscow Project for the Center for American Progress. “If Trump took a strong stance toward Russia, it would contradict the narrative that he’s in Putin’s pocket. The fact that won’t dare do so tells you everything you need to know: He’s in Putin pocket.”
Others point to the example both Trump and Obama set with regard to China. Former ambassador Eric Edelman told me the lesson that powers have learned is that aggression of the sort China has undertaken in the South China Sea pays off. Beginning in about 2010, when “the Chinese began to believe that the U.S. was in decline after the Great Recession,” Edelman recounted. That, “coupled with the sense that China was a rising power to whom much was due (certainly in the Far East), led to a marked increase in aggressive behavior by the [People’s Republic of China]. This was reinforced by the sense that Obama intended to seriously circumscribe the U.S. international role by retrenching. Even the Obama ‘pivot’ or rebalance to the Pacific’ was pretty small beer against a larger backdrop of diminished U.S. leadership.” Edelman added that “Trump, of course, has reinforced many of the same themes (‘nation-building at home,’ ‘stupid endless wars in the Middle East,’ etc.).”
If Putin is adhering to the axiom attributed to Lenin — “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw” — then he is finding mush. He has no reason to turn back.
Whether you believe Trump is compromised, or is simply weak and ineffective in restraining aggressive powers, we are not “winning” yet. Democrats would be wise to seize the initiative, pass legislation to enact a price for Russian misbehavior and run in 2020 on a platform of strong U.S. leadership in the world based on democratic values. We need at least one party consistently committed to defending our interests and our values.