If Trump’s Secret Strategy Is to Confuse All Sides in Ukraine, He Has

The conflict between Trump’s apparent views and his UN ambassador’s blunt statements has stunned Moscow—and the Donbass war rages on.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty

MOSCOW—Once again, the almost three-year-old war in Ukraine is raging like fire in a dry forest. The Kiev government reported 19 soldiers killed this week while rebel-controlled Donetsk reported the deaths of 18 militants and six civilians. Dozens of people were wounded on both sides of the conflict. The severe fighting on Thursday night left many people homeless and terrified.

The escalation has been seen by many as a test of the intentions of the newly occupied White House and the Kremlin. But very quickly in the last two days the fog of war has become the fog of policy as top officials in the Trump administration appear to have reversed the pro-Russian sentiments Donald Trump the candidate and president-elect was thought to have.

“The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea,” Nikki Haley, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Thursday. “Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.”

On the battlefield, one of the victims was British photographer Christopher Nunn, whose eyes were badly wounded when artillery hit a multi-story apartment building in Avdiivka, a small town right on the front line of the escalating war in Donbass. According to an advisor for the Dnipropetrovsk governor, the woman Nunn was interviewing was killed by the blast.

Russian television channels broadcast images of the other side of the front lines: the burning market in Donetsk near the city’s railroad station. When it came to news coverage, the Kremlin treats the conflict in Ukraine as Russia’s own war—but still denies that Russia is supporting the breakaway territories of Donbass militarily. “We hope that they [rebel forces] will have enough weapons to respond to the aggressive actions of the Ukrainian military forces,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday.

At this point, both Ukraine and Russia are not clear what the U.S. policy will be in the Donbass war. Two armies are facing each other, one is backed by Russia and the other has been backed by the U.S., at least until recently. The U.S. had been Ukraine's staunchest ally and technically at least it still is: the U.S. instructors are still training Ukrainian soldiers in Western Ukraine. And Haley’s speech sowed nothing but confusion as it gave hope to Kiev and made Donetsk commanders angry.

For the moment, the Kremlin apparently remains confident that Trump is still with Moscow. "Nobody is surprised that Haley made her statement, she is one of the most anti-Russian officials in the U.S.," Igor Bunin, president of the Russian independent foundation Center of Political Technologies told The Daily Beast on Friday. (It’s not clear how one could draw that conclusion about a woman who until this year was governor of South Carolina, and who serves at the discretion of President Trump.)

A source in the United Nations Development Program confirmed to The Daily Beast that in recent days Donetsk has suffered the worst destruction since leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, France and Belarus made a peace deal in Minsk in February, 2015.

Russian federal law enforcement agencies announced they had launched an investigation into civilian deaths in Donetsk. The city had to evacuate residents from Kiyevsky district, and many buildings were destroyed around the city. But because rebel militants had created a hostile environment for Ukrainian journalists, Ukrainian state channels were not able to cover the situation in burning Donetsk.

Both sides of the conflict accused each other of aggression, and both Moscow and Kiev blamed each other for the use of Grad and Uragan multiple rocket launching systems in thickly populated areas.

So, both sides of the conflict were waiting anxiously to hear what Washington had to say about the humanitarian catastrophe developing in the frozen cityscapes of Ukraine.

Haley's U.N. address was the first strong statement by a U.S. official about Ukraine since Donald Trump’s inauguration.

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“We do want to better our relations with Russia,” she said, noting the president’s oft-stated desires. “However,” she continued, “the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.”

“Condemnation” isn’t a word normally used among friends. But in Moscow officials refused to believe that President Trump could be thinking along the same lines. “If, as Haley says, the USA wants better relations with Russia, then they should not repeat the same Obama administration platitudes. Trump cancels [Obama’s executive] orders, so it’s time to cancel the wording, too,” Aleksey Pushkov, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the State Duma wrote on Twitter on Friday.

Independent observers of the conflict in Donbass struggle to understand why the war escalated now. “It is a catastrophe,” says Donald Bowser, an advisor to the UNDP. “Both sides have a degree of command and control [and can] turn violence off,” he noted. But that’s not happening.

The only geopolitical weapon that Ukraine has against Russia is international sanctions, And last month Trump, president-elect at the time, gave Russia hope that all Barack Obama’s punishments inficted on Russia for annexing Crimea and backing the rebels in Ukraine would be forgiven.

“They [the Obama administration] have sanctions on Russia—let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia,” Trump suggested. “For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it.” The other theme he’s touched on consistently is joint action against the so-called Islamic State and other jihadists.

And now comes this seeming reversal. Bunin suggests, “All Trump is interested in is to fight ISIS together with Russia and cut nuclear weapons, Ukraine is not on the agenda.”

But the war in Ukraine is not a small issue at this point. It looms very large in the Russian mind, not least because of the strategic importance of Crimea and its Black Sea port of Sebastapol. It is, for other countries on Russia’s frontiers, including the Baltic States which are members of NATO, a frightening precedent.

And the humanitarian costs of the Ukraine war in Donbass are impossible to ignore. Over one million people were left without drinking water in Donetsk this month as a result of artillery hitting a purification plant. Thousands of families—the whole town of Avdiivka—were left without electricity, no proper hearting and no drinking water.

Although Ambassador Haley said the United States stands with the Ukrainian people, those in Donbass feel that the West has abandoned them in this time of trouble. Meanwhile those in Kiev-controlled territories are realizing once again that the front line is not so far away.

“For the third day people gather at Maidan square [in Kiev] for a farewell ceremony for those who've died,” Nataliya Gumenyuk, the editor of Hramadske TV, told The Daily Beast. “There is a lot of confusion. People ask, ‘Why now?’ The first thing that comes to mind is that probably the Kremlin tests the waters—to check the reaction of Putin-Trump relations.”

On Friday, Russia decided to recognize passports issued by the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as a part of its “humanitarian support.” In Moscow, experts continued trying to calculate Trump’s thinking. “Looking at this disaster, Trump, who is advised by people like [Henry] Kissinger, probably realizes that it is better to agree with Russia and not to turn it into a castle under siege,” Bunin suggested.

Perhaps. But as the world has learned, Trump is a man whose words are as hard to pin down as ashes in the wind.