Jumping from Hamburg to Kiev, 65-year-old Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left the cushy confines of G20 diplomacy to the realpolitik of Ukraine where Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the Crimean Peninsula March 1, 2014. Tillerson met today with 51-year-old billionaire chocolate baron Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. When President Donald Trump met for the first time with Putin July 7 in Hamburg, the meeting covered a lot of ground. By all accounts, Trump and Putin had good chemistry, spending an hour-and-forty-five minutes longer than scheduled. Trump and Putin talked about wide ranging issues, including Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Ukraine, Syria and the battle against the Islamic State. Finding common ground Trump and Putin tried to overcome their differences, working together on joint goals. Tillerson’s meeting with Poroshenko opened up a can of worms.
Porsohenko doesn’t want to deal with the circumstances under which former Russian–backed duly elected President Viktor Yanukovich was chased out of Kiev Feb. 22, 2014 by an angry pro-Western mob led by former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko. Putin washed the bloodless coup from his post at t he Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Watching Yanukovich chased out of Kiev, Putin didn’t waste any time running the Russian Army into Crimea, much like he did in Georgia’s Abkasia and South Ossetia Aug. 7, 2008. Claiming he was protecting pro-Russian people in the region, Putin had plenty of excuses for invading Georgia. Former Georgia President Mikhail Saaskashvili pleaded with the U.S. and NATO to intervene but found no one willing to take on the Russian Federation. Meeting with Poroshenko, Tillerson sent a loud message to the Kremlin.
Tillerson wants Putin to take the first steps of the Minsk Protocols of withdrawing Russian military support for the Donbass regions of Southeastern Ukraine. Tillerson confirmed that he primary goal of the U.S. “is to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,” something Poroshenko demands. Porsoshenko has his work cut out for him convincing pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region that they’re better off with Kiev over Moscow. With the Ukrainian government in shambles, unable to meet the economic needs of its citizens in Donbass, Crimea and other parts of the country, Poroshenko has a tough sell in the region. If war hawks in Congress like Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would let Trump conduct foreign policy and repair damage U.S.-Russian relations, there’s little doubt Putin would consider getting out of Crimea for a price.
Calling Putin an untrustworthy “killer,” McCain and Graham have sabotaged Trump’s attempt at a Russian reset. Less belligerent rhetoric on Capitol Hill would go a long way in inviting Putin to get re-engaged with West. Putn’s no fool, he knows the March 1, 2014 Ukraine invasion came with a price. To end punitive U.N. sanctions, Putin would be smart to make a deal with Trump on Ukraine. Trump would be open to cutting a deal to let the Russian military stay in Crimea. ”We do call on Russia to take the first steps to de-escalate the situation in the eastern part of Ukraine,” said Tillerson, referring to pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region. Poroshenko wants Putin out of Ukraine so he can reassert control over rebel-controlled territories. Tillerson has to recognize the fact that a sizable number of pro-Russian Ukrainians don’t want to be governed by Poroshenko’s Kiev authority.
Poroshenko must stop the belligerent talk about Russia if he wants Putin to eventually give back Crimea. “We are disappointed by the lack of progress under the Minsk process and that’s why we are appointing a special representative,” said Tillerson referring to U.S. NATO Amb. Kurt Volker. If Poroshenko had made more progress fighting corruption and with economic reforms, maybe he’d hold more sway with pro-Russian separatists. “Ukraine ha come a long way,” Tillerson said. “We want to acknowledge that, [but] we still have more to do.” This is all about security Ukraine’s future: Making the place attractive for investors, being attractive for European neighbors,” said Tillerson, reminding Poroshenko that he’s got more work to do. Poroshenko likes to blame all Ukraine’s ills on Russia, taking no responsibility for the Feb. 22, 2014 coup that toppled Yanukovich.
If Tillerson can get Poroshenko to stop slamming Putin, he’d have a shot at convincing the Kremlin that the costs of keeping Crimea are not worth the price of sanctions and world isolation. “Kiev did not plan, did not start this war,” said Poroshenko. “It was planned and started by Moscow. That’s why the keys to peaceful settlement are in Moscow,” completing ignoring the Feb. 22 coup that ejected duly elected Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich. Putin didn’t start the war, as Poroshenko insists. He reacted to Yankovich’s eviction from Kiev. If Poroshenko wants to make any progress toward getting back Crimea, he needs to acknowledge his role in the current Ukrainian crisis. Improving U.S.-Russian relations, Trump and Tillerson have a real shot of convincing Putin that it’s not worth hanging onto Crimea, working on a deal that works for all sides.