Last December, in these very pages, I warned that a particular danger the new Trump administration would face in the national security field would be the problem of senior figures issuing “contradictory statements” about U.S. policy, especially in the absence of “effective direction” from the White House. This would lead to uncertainty both within the U.S. government as well as in the capitals of other nations about American intentions—with potentially destabilizing consequences. Unfortunately, over the last several months, we have seen these worries become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s visit to Ukraine is the latest example to add to the list. In his public comments, Mattis reiterated the generic language that the United States “stands with Ukraine” and “supports” Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But, like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his visit to Kiev earlier this year, Mattis did not provide additional specifics. For those who were expecting Mattis’s visit to mark the definitive statement of what a Trump administration policy will consist of, and how it will differ from the assessments which guided the stance of the Obama administration, his public comments in Kiev provided no answers—and may have further muddied the waters.
Let’s review the state of play. By 2016, the Obama administration had settled in to a particular policy pathway on Ukraine: the United States would not recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia or the legitimacy of any separatist entities in the Donbass, but would not actively force any sort of reversal. Instead, the United States seemed on track to view the status of Crimea the same way Washington treated the Baltic states under Soviet occupation or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus: not providing any de jure recognition, but not doing much to change the state of affairs. The United States would concentrate on using business sanctions and financial pressure to raise the costs for Russia, in the hopes that economic pain would get the Kremlin to reconsider its actions—but would leave the heavy diplomatic lifting on behalf of the Western alliance to Germany and France. Finally, the Obama administration committed to assisting Ukraine in its political and economic reforms, and to providing nonlethal assistance, intelligence support and training for the Ukrainian military—but stopped short of supplying U.S. weaponry, especially Javelin antitank missiles, based on the assessment that Russia, in the observation of my colleague Olga Oliker, enjoyed the benefits of “escalation dominance.”