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World'Better than nothing:' Baltic officials worry about Russia as US gives Ukrainian navy $10 million

04:45  23 december  2018
04:45  23 december  2018 Source:   washingtonexaminer.com

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'Better than nothing:' Baltic officials worry about Russia as US gives Ukrainian navy $10 million© Provided by MediaDC: Washington Newspaper Publishing Company, Inc.

President Trump’s decision to give $10 million to fortify the Ukrainian navy drew little more enthusiasm than a lump of coal from Baltic officials alarmed by Russian aggression.

“It's better than nothing,” a Baltic diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, told the Washington Examiner. “It's not big enough, and not just in terms of money but in terms of the reaction.”

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The reaction was constrained by disagreements within Europe and the United States over how forcefully to respond to Russia’s attack on three Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea last month. Russia’s seizure of the vessels was “unacceptable” and marked a “dangerous increase of tensions” in the war that followed the annexation of Crimea, the European Union said in November.

A call for new sanctions, however, foundered as Western European powers touted “the need to continue diplomatic efforts” with Russia. Trump’s team declined to react much more forcefully than the European Union to a crisis just a few hundred miles from their capitals, limiting the U.S. response to $10 million “to further build Ukraine’s naval capabilities,” as the State Department announced.

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“We do so in solidarity with Lithuania and the United Kingdom, also planning to increase their security assistance to Ukraine,” Robert Palladino, the State Department deputy spokesman, said in a Friday evening announcement.

“The United States calls on Russia to immediately return to Ukraine the seized vessels and detained Ukrainian crews, to keep the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov open to ships transiting to and from Ukrainian ports, and to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters,” he added.

It’s an unimpressive response, from the perspective of Baltic officials most threatened by potential Russian aggression. “It’s better than nothing, but $10 million isn’t a huge sum,” an official from a second Baltic nation told the Washington Examiner, in an unconscious echo of other criticism.

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The funding is a far milder show of support than a top Senate Republican was urging the Trump administration to take last week. Sen. Ron Johnson, who chairs the Foreign Relations subcommittee for Europe, urged the White House to lead a “multinational” flotilla of Western warships into the Black Sea, as a way of warning Russian President Vladimir Putin not to try to seize more territory from Ukraine.

“If not, I think Russia will view that as a real sign of weakness,” the Wisconsin Republican told the Washington Examiner. “I don't want to see a hot war. I don’t want to see a gun fired ... [but] we need to put him on notice, we're not going to allow that to happen.”

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The decision to stop well short of that proposal, at least for now, is just the latest good news for Putin’s foreign policy goals, just days after President Trump announced the unexpected withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and amid reports that he will draw down forces in Afghanistan. Russia is providing military support to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and, according to U.S. officials, arming the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“It's music to Putin's ears,” the Baltic diplomat said.

The development reflects a split between major western European powers and the Baltic nations who were occupied by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. A top Estonian official proposed “imposing sanctions hurting these people responsible for that kind of escalation” during a November interview with the Washington Examiner. But Italy long has been skeptical of Western sanctions on Russia. France and Germany have supported the current EU sanctions, but worried that adding to them would undermine the Normandy Four talks they are trying to broker with Ukraine and Russia.

“We emphasize the need to continue diplomatic efforts aimed at restoring the state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Isabelle Dumont, the French ambassador to Ukraine, was quoted as saying last week in Ukrainian media to explain her country’s opposition to new sanctions. “This is why we are focusing on the continuation of the dialogue.”

That position frustrated the Baltic states, who believe that Western Europeans are getting played by Putin, who “abuses these talks” to instill hesitance in French and German leaders.

“They do an aggressive act and then they say if you react to our aggression, it will derail the Normandy format, or it will derail the peace process ... so you’re kind of paralyzed,” the Baltic diplomat said. “The Kremlin is very wise, actually, playing this game because they know almost have free hands.”

The State Department has lobbied for an aggressive multinational response to the Kerch Strait incident, but it emphasized that the European Union would need to take a leading role.

“We want to see European allies take greater responsibility for a security problem that’s just 200 miles from Germany’s border, and we’ll be right there with them every step of the way,” a senior State Department official told reporters on the way to the NATO foreign minister summit in early December. “There’s a lot of things that the United States has done and will continue to do for the Ukrainians, but we want to make sure that we come out of this week with a unified position where we’re working with allies to have a holistic response.”

The Baltic diplomat sympathized with the American protests, despite wishing for a tougher Western response, saying that the issue should be understood as a clash between Russia and all Western powers rather than just Russia and the United States.

“It shouldn’t become a U.S. problem; it’s a joint problem [for] the Western democracies,” the diplomat said. "So this is my understanding, that the U.S. didn't want to to take stronger measures because it might become a burden on their shoulders and another problem in the U.S.-Russia bilateral agenda."

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