As the political firestorm over President Trump’s executive action concerning immigration slowly subsides, signs of the first potential foreign policy challenge for the Trump administration are cropping up in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Since his inauguration on 20 January, Trump has been primarily occupied with domestic issues, with the exception of a visit by the UK Prime Minister and a handful of conversations with important allies and other global leaders. Events in Iran on Sunday, the Ukraine over the past 48 hours, and an incident off the coast of Yemen yesterday indicate that soon the Trump administration’s foreign policy team will be going into action.
Yesterday, a Saudi Al Madinah class frigate was attacked in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen by three suicide boats manned by Houthi rebels. One of the boats struck the stern of the Saudi frigate causing a large explosion and subsequent fire. Two sailors were killed and three wounded. Damage to the ship appears to be limited though and it is in no danger of sinking. The attack comes after a period of quiet following attacks by Iranian-backed Houthis against a UAE logistics ship, and US warships in October, 2016. In those attacks, Houthi rebels fired land-based anti-ship missiles against the ships on separate occasions. The missiles targeting US ships were defeated by countermeasures, while the UAE ship suffered a hit and a large amount of damage. The attack on the Saudi warship could be a thinly veiled message by the Houthi backers in Tehran concerning the talks over the weekend between President Trump and Saudi King Salman.
On Sunday, Iran test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile in violation of UN Resolution 2231, a resolution calling on Iran not to conduct such tests. The test was a failure, with the missile exploding 600 miles away from its launch site. The timing of the test is suspicious as well, coming shortly after the US-Saudi leadership discussion mentioned above. The White House has called the test irresponsible and a violation of Resolution 2231. The UN Security Council is expected to meet either tonight or tomorrow on the matter, though no action is expected.
In Ukraine, fighting has renewed in the eastern section of the country between government troops and Russian-backed separatist forces. Artillery and rocket fire hit residential areas in the government-held town of Avdiivka. Between Sunday and Monday nights, the number of ceasefire violations spiked and Ukrainian forces suffered casualties, signaling an escalation in the fighting. The situation has caused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to cut his working trip to Germany, where he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Again, timing is a factor to consider here. The renewed attacks came not long after Vladimir Putin and President Trump had their first discussion over the weekend. Putin was possibly expecting Trump to remove the heavy economic US sanctions that were imposed on Russia by the Obama administration. Since that did not come about, the new activity in Ukraine could be his own response to the United States.
On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden will arrive in Kiev on a farewell visit as part of his final overseas trip before leaving office. He has been one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters and his visit comes at a time when many Ukrainians are harboring deep feelings of anxiety about their nation’s future after Donald Trump is inaugurated on 20 January. The greatest concern is that US support will diminish after next week. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump expressed his wishes to improve US-Russian relations if possible. Many Ukrainians interpreted this to mean that if he were elected, US support will dry up. Whether or not that’s the case remains to be seen. However, given Trump’s comments about Vladimir Putin recently, it is safe to assume that the United States will keep backing Ukraine for at least the next few months.
It is unclear whether Biden’s visit will be anything beyond a ‘keep your chin up’ pep-talk as he exits the geo-political stage. Certainly, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is hoping for more. Following Trump’s election, the two men spoke and Poroshenko stressed Ukraine’s need for US backing to assure security and the continued implementation of reforms. They agreed to hold a bilateral meeting but no concrete plans have been laid yet.
As far as the current Biden goes, he was a strong political supporter of Ukraine, visiting there four times during his tenure and maintaining regular contact with Poroshenko and other Ukrainian leaders. Behind the scenes in Washington he was personally involved in formulating many of the decisions concerning US policy with Ukraine since the 2014 invasion of Crimea and subsequent War in Donbass. That conflict has been somewhat forgotten to an extent lately. Ukraine wants to make sure that the world does not forget that the fighting and its struggle with Russia continue.
The situation in Ukraine is becoming more strained and volatile as time goes on. Ukrainian military forces along the border with Crimea, along with those facing the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in the east have increased their combat readiness. The move was ordered by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as Moscow continues to loudly accuse Ukraine of making incursions into Crimean territory. Kiev has flatly denied undertaking any such actions. US and European diplomats in the Ukrainian capital have bolstered this claim, stating that no evidence of alleged incursions has been presented to corroborate Russia’s allegations.
Yesterday, the FSB, Russia’s principal security agency, claimed to have uncovered a Ukrainian military and intelligence network attempting to make incursions into Crimea last weekend. ‘Heavy fire’ from the Ukrainian side of the border is said to have resulted in the death of one Russian soldier and an FSB officer was killed while trying to ‘detain infiltrators.’ FSB has in fact detained a number of suspected infiltrators and has even gone so far as to declare one to be a Ukrainian military intelligence officer.
Vladimir Putin has accused Kiev of ‘practicing terror’ and vows that he will not allow ‘such things to slide by.’ Poroshenko, for his part, has labeled the Russian allegations as ‘absurd and cynical.’ He has also suggested that Russia is looking for a pretext for further military action in Ukraine.
Poroshenko’s suggestion does carry water. This crisis certainly appears to have been artificially manufactured and is escalating at controlled intervals scripted by Moscow. Preparations for a renewed separatist offensive have been underway for weeks in eastern Ukraine. New equipment and supplies have arrived in separatist-held territory from Russia. Russian ‘advisers’ have been seen in Donetsk training separatist groups to operate more effectively under combat conditions. These ‘incursions’ by Ukrainian military and intelligence personnel into Crimea provide Russia with a convenient and timely justification to take a larger role in conflict.
The situation on the ground in Ukraine right now is very fluid. If it continues to play out along the same lines that it has all week, expect there to be some tense moments in the coming days.