The Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine produced one very hot summer. Through August, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recorded between 1,000 and 1,500 nightly cease-fire violations, a large majority committed by Russian-led forces. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians continue to be killed or injured on a daily basis. While the attacks have tailed off since Labor Day, Moscow this month teed up a huge military exercise in western Russia, Belarus and Kaliningrad that stoked fears of an even broader assault.
Since invading Ukraine three and a half years ago, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has mastered the tactical rheostat, turning up the heat at will, then cooling things down when the United States and Europe push back. In this way, he hopes to keep Ukraine permanently destabilized, fueling domestic discontent at Kiev’s inability to end the occupation, buying time to buy back the influence Russia lost by invading and bullying Ukraine into a Russian sphere of influence.
President Trump’s pro-Putin predilections make him the least likely answer to Ukraine’s predicament. Yet his administration is quietly fashioning a policy that just could break the ice — if Mr. Trump agrees.
It starts with a united front among Mr. Trump’s senior advisers — Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster. They see Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine for what it is: a gross violation of the most basic norms of international conduct that the United States helped establish after World War II. It is not acceptable for one country to change the borders of another by force. It is not O.K. for one sovereignty to dictate to another which countries or organizations it may associate with. It is not all right for Russia to decide Ukraine’s future. Mr. Trump’s team rightly believes that if the United States fails to stand against the abuse of these principles, the international order America built will be weakened.
The administration enlisted a smart, seasoned diplomat, Kurt Volker, to run point on its Ukraine policy. He succeeds Victoria Nuland, whose dogged diplomacy gave the Kremlin fits. Hiring Mr. Volker at the same time the State Department is busy firing virtually every other special envoy sends a message to Moscow that Washington remains focused on ending the occupation, not ignoring it.
So does the administration’s commitment to maintain the tough sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia and painstakingly tended to keep Europe on board. Those sanctions, coupled with sharply lower oil prices, have cost Russia dearly — including by denying it the sophisticated technology it needs to exploit increasingly hard-to-reach energy reserves. The Trump administration told Moscow sanctions will stay in place as long as Russia stays in Eastern Ukraine.
NATO is not going anywhere, either. The Obama administration pressed the alliance to establish a nearly continuous air, land and sea presence — including United States forces — along Russia’s western flank to deter attacks against its most vulnerable neighbors. It also made a multibillion-dollar investment — the European Reassurance Initiative — to fund the increased activities. Despite Mr. Trump’s bouts of NATO bashing, the administration is sustaining both efforts.
For all these continuities in policy, one vital discontinuity would add a timely exclamation point: the senior team’s united recommendation that Mr. Trump lift restrictions on the provision of lethal defensive equipment to Kiev, notably anti-tank weapons.
That ban was heavily debated during the last administration. Its proponents argued that any military escalation favored Moscow, for whom the stakes were higher and the ability to quickly pour more lethal weapons into Ukraine much greater. They were concerned Ukraine would be emboldened to act out militarily and overplay its hand. They knew that Moscow sought to divide us from our European partners, most of whom opposed lethal aid. President Barack Obama concluded that we should keep the focus where we had the advantage: on tough sanctions, economic aid to Ukraine, training for its troops, support for its reform efforts — especially combating endemic corruption — and determined diplomacy.
That was then. For three and a half years, Moscow has blown past every diplomatic off-ramp offered by the United States and Europe to end the crisis. Instead of implementing the Minsk Agreement — a road map it signed to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty while protecting the rights of all of its citizens, including the Russian-speaking minority — the Kremlin has denied the agreement’s plain meaning and dodged its obligations. The occupied east now harbors one of the largest tank forces in Europe. And tens of thousands of Russian troops are poised across a border that Moscow controls, a stark reminder to Kiev that a much larger swath of its territory remains in jeopardy.
What might give Mr. Putin pause at turning up the temperature yet again within eastern Ukraine — or worse, taking another whole bite out of the country — is the knowledge his troops would be seriously bloodied in the doing. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, once the leading opponent of lethal aid, now is open to it. Listening to Mr. Putin’s lies, year after year, has that effect. Defensive weapons for Ukraine is an idea whose time has come.
The final piece to the puzzle is diplomacy. Here — irony alert — the administration is using the United Nations to call Mr. Putin’s latest bluff: a peacekeeping force for eastern Ukraine on terms grossly advantageous to Moscow. The administration’s jiu-jitsu: Give that force dominion over the entire occupied area, put all heavy weapons under lock and key, give back to Ukraine control of its border and we’ve got a deal.
Against all expectations, the Trump administration is not giving up on Ukraine and going back to business as usual with Moscow. Russia can stay where it is. But so will the United States-led front against its aggression.
Antony J. Blinken, a managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, was a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration and is a contributing opinion writer.