Amid Russia’s range of aggressive measures against Western democracies, the need for a strong U.S.-Ukraine relationship as a bulwark against westward Russian aggression in Central Europe and the Baltics is quite evident.

The U.S.-Ukraine strategic partnership is now far more robust than it was under former President Barack Obama, who displayed a conspicuous lack of interest for Ukraine. But President Trump’s statement before the recent G-7 meeting that he supports Russia rejoining the G-7 has introduced a new element. For Russia to be permitted to rejoin the G-7, it must live up to its commitments made in 1994 to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty when Kiev gave up its nuclear weapons.

Trump’s new national security team, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, has placed a renewed emphasis on strengthening relations with Kiev and pushing back against Russia in global affairs, including Moscow’s continued support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine. In order to prevent any future violations of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and halt Russia’s aggression further westward past Donetsk, Secretary Pompeo announced U.S. support for NATO membership for Ukraine. This was Washington’s first public support for this initiative since the George W. Bush administration, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney was a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s membership in NATO.

Conversely, the Obama administration, with former Vice President Joe Biden overseeing Washington’s Ukraine portfolio, opposed NATO membership enlargement for Ukraine, as well as Georgia, reneging on a 2008 NATO summit resolution that had promised this step. The Obama administration refused to see the writing on the wall with Putin since his infamous speech to the Munich Security Conference, when he accused the United States of undermining global stability. Only two months later, Russia launched a cyberattack against NATO member Estonia and a year later invaded Georgia.

Instead of imposing sanctions on Russia, Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton responded with a “reset” of relations based on a fantasy that President Dmitri Medvedev was a “liberal,” ignoring the fact that in Russia, Putin has always been the organ grinder. Obama’s style of leading America from behind also resulted in his administration opposing the Magnitsky Act, which laid sanctions against Russian officials responsible for the death of dissident attorney Sergei Magnitsky in prison.

All of the above appeasement further emboldened Putin to believe that Russia would face no consequences from the invasion of Crimea and its support for the hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine. If Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, it would add to its military strength, as it is ranked 29th out of 136 countries in the most recent Global Firepower ranking. Ukraine’s military under President Petro Poroshenko ranks near to those of Poland and Canada. Only 10 of 29 current NATO members have greater military capabilities.

Reforms supported through the U.S.-Ukraine strategic partnership have led to the Ukrainian military’s revival, including a quadrupling of military spending since 2013, an expansion of the size of the military, and the addition of brigade-level exercises that were not undertaken previously. Ukraine also added 800 new tanks and increased flying exercises for Ukrainian airmen from 26 to 46 hours per year. In a further show of strength, Ukraine successfully tested the VILHA 300mm surface-to-surface rocket in December 2017.

Washington and Kiev have worked extensively to improve defense and security cooperation, with Secretary Pompeo overseeing Ukraine matters for the administration. Earlier this year, Ukraine’s military capabilities to thwart a Russian invasion increased substantially, thanks to the addition of much-needed lethal defensive weaponry from the United States. More recently, the FBI worked closely with Ukrainian cyber authorities to prevent a large-scale cyberattack from Fancy Bear, the well-known hacker group linked to Russian military intelligence.

As Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election draws nearer, Washington will closely monitor how candidates could affect Washington’s strategic interests in Ukraine. The Pentagon will almost certainly watch how the candidates address the issue of Ukraine’s four-year conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The Trump administration should especially make clear that it will only support candidates who will continue reforms, firmly support NATO and European Union membership, and are best suited to prevent Russian-backed populists from coming to power.

 

This article was originally posted at The Washington Examiner.

The views expressed in CCNS member articles are not necessarily the views or positions of the entire CCNS. They are the views of the authors, who are members of the CCNS.

© 2018. All rights reserved.

© 2018. All rights reserved.