The 28th January witnessed the anticipated (perhaps with extreme preemptive hyperbole) telephone conversation between President Putin and President Trump.
The repercussions of this telephone call were immediately witnessed in eastern Ukraine – and will undoubtedly unfold elsewhere too in due course.
Sanctions upon Russia were maintained which was not unexpected despite the preemptive angst. It will be several months at least, possibly 6 months, before President Trump may make any significant changes to the current sanctions regime. For somebody that considers himself the Alpha male and a wonderful negotiator The Kremlin would have to offer something meaningful to President Trump in return – his narcissistic character simply couldn’t cope with a global public crucifixion and the ridicule he’d receive from announcing a deal where he emerges as clearly the weakest and surrendering the most for the least.
(A reader can immediately dismiss any US nuclear arms reduction talk by the new Administration, for it is nuclear arms that is all that keeps President Putin relevant in the global arena – so why give any up when already modernising the Russian nuclear weapon arsenal? It is a perceived strength within The Kremlin.)
Nevertheless, sanctions will probably end during 2017 via President Trump – unless President Putin overreaches somewhere and somehow.
The 28th January telephone call readouts from the White House and The Kremlin are striking in that The Kremlin’s is longer and more detailed vis a vis that of the US – and importantly for Ukraine, there is no mention of Ukraine in the US readout whereas there is in that of The Kremlin.
Whatever was or was not said about Ukraine in that 28th January telephone conversation, the following day, 29th January witnessed a significant uptick in the war in Eastern Ukraine around a small town named Avdiivka.
Details of the (on-going) serious battle are unnecessary for this entry, (but can be found here) – suffice to say the number of deaths, injuries and heavy armour employed mark a significant and deliberate escalation.
That escalation continued throughout 30th January and continues as of the time of writing. Ominously The Donbas is back on Russian TV after months of more or less complete absence.
Clearly President Putin is continuing his conversation with President Trump (notwithstanding messaging Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister May who counseled (as far as is possible) President Trump prior to his call with the Russian President).
This conversation will continue to push the envelope in an attempt to see if there is any reaction from the Trump White House – where thus far there is none. At the time of writing, not even a meaningless diplomatic statement of “concern” spews forth.
Whatever the European leaders say, whilst not entirely irrelevant, this conversation is one between The Kremlin and The White House which is being played out in Avdiivka – and if there is no reaction from the Trump White House, The Kremlin may decide (rightly or wrongly) to infer that lack of response as a de facto acknowledgement of a sphere of influence.
So much so expected – however that sphere of influence will not be limited to Ukraine if it is ceded.
There has also been a noticeable rise in Russian rhetoric regarding Belarus that will not have failed to register with President Lukashenko – something that will be irritated by the Zapad 2017 exercise being held in the Russian Western Military District and (perhaps groundless) speculation that it bodes ill for the future of Belarus. An occupation is an extremely unlikely scenario – unless President Putin is absolutely certain he has indeed been granted his sphere of influence.
Nevertheless, a watchful eye on Belarus for the sake of caution may be wise.
(There is of course The Kremlin’s overt efforts in Syria, its covert shenanigans in Afghanistan and probably a further experimenting with PMC’s such as Wagner in Libya very soon as well.)
Regardless, the 28th January telephone call between President’s Putin and Trump continues – with President Putin doing the talking via Avdiivka. It’s unclear whether President Trump is too busy on twitter or mitigating poorly crafted EOs to be listening though.
Meanwhile as predicted for Ukraine 2017 has started “hot” despite the freezing temperatures as President Putin prods and pokes seeking reaction – or not – from the Trump Administration. With such an expected start to the year, the now predictable “guns of August” annual escalation in fighting looks set to be particularly fierce with such a January backdrop.