One hour after declaring on Thursday that he would keep his meeting with the Russian president, planned for Saturday against the backdrop of the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires, the American president announced the meeting was cancelled.
Donald Trump never retreats from a contradiction. One hour after declaring that he would keep his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, planned for Saturday Dec. 1 against the backdrop of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market nations in Buenos Aires, because “it’s a very good time to have a meeting,” the American president tweeted that the same meeting was cancelled. He justified the decision by citing Russia’s boarding of Ukrainian ships on Nov. 25 in the Kerch Strait and the continued detention of captured Ukrainian sailors.
The Sea of Azov affair thus takes on the international dimension that it deserves. The Nov. 25 incident during which Russian forces opened fire on Ukrainian ships and wounded several sailors, is a flagrant violation of international law, as are the broadcast “confessions” of three detained sailors, confessions that were obviously forced. The Kremlin’s objective in this operation is clear: After having annexed Crimea in 2014 and sustained an armed conflict in the Donbass for four years, Moscow now intends to control the Sea of Azov, which borders both Russia and Ukraine, and economically strangle the two Ukrainian seaports.
Donald Trump Hates Diplomacy
Should the Trump-Putin meeting have been cancelled? Ideally, the American president could have taken advantage of the situation to have a strong conversation with Russia. He could have tried to obtain the release of the sailors, discussed the greater issue of Ukraine and addressed other hot-button matters like Syria and nuclear arms control. In other words, do diplomacy.
But Trump hates diplomacy, especially when it has to do with Russia at a moment when, in the background back in Washington, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the suspicious links between candidate Trump and Russian interests is increasingly coming into focus. Trump cannot take the risk of repeating the fiasco that was his last summit with Putin in July in Helsinki, where he fully yielded to the Russian president, going so far as to denounce his own intelligence services. The cancellation of the Buenos Aires meeting is, in fact, an admission of weakness by Trump.
Nevertheless, democracies committed to international law cannot remain passive in the face of what’s happening in the Sea of Azov, in the same way that they cannot remain passive in the face of similar actions such as those by Beijing in the South China Sea, where the unilateral and forceful establishment of national control over an international maritime area is taking place.
The European Union is directly involved with the problem in Ukraine; the EU and Ukraine have been linked by a treaty since 2017. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday raised the wider problem of a “belt of countries” around Russia in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, which “cannot develop as they want.” The operation in the Sea of Azov has abruptly called attention to the challenge posed by the strategy of Putin’s Russian sphere of influence. Bordering the EU, Ukraine presents an even more acute challenge. As Trump said, “it’s a very good time” for the United States, the EU and NATO to unanimously condemn, with the utmost firmness, Russia’s opening of this third Ukrainian front in the Sea of Azov, and to consider measures beyond sanctions, something which Moscow seems to have grown accustomed to.