July 13, 2017 7:13 p.m. ET
‘Sanctions were not discussed at my meeting with President Putin, ” Donald Trump tweeted Sunday. “Nothing will be done until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved!” Hours before the two presidents met, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson underlined this tough line on sanctions by appointing Russia hawk Kurt Volker as chief U.S. envoy on Ukraine.
Messrs. Trump and Putin made limited progress on Syria, but Moscow has been intensifying its efforts to destabilize Ukraine. Mr. Putin has been reluctant to deploy large military forces, but fighting in Eastern Ukraine claims five or six lives a week. Of late the Kremlin has escalated its aggression with military attacks on civilian targets, assassinations, cyberattacks to cripple the state and economy, and the economic and partial political integration of the occupied region into Russia.
Mr. Putin’s war against Ukraine has boomeranged. His aggression has consolidated popular opinion, with one recent poll showing that 92% of those on territory controlled by Kiev now see themselves as Ukrainians. A decade ago that number stood at 75%. While a portion of this shift is attributable to the absence of data from occupied portions of Ukraine, most of it comes from shifting public attitudes. Mr. Putin is further stymied by Ukraine’s growing military capability and frustrated by signs of its economic recovery, both results of President Petro Poroshenko’s reforms.
For Mr. Putin, this is unacceptable. Russia is paying a large economic price because of Western sanctions. It also faces a growing threat of social discontent in the impoverished parts of Ukraine it controls. With 1.8 million residents internally displaced on Ukraine-controlled soil and 600,000 resettled in Russia, the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk “peoples republics,” known by the acronyms DNR and LNR, have a combined population of more than 3.5 million. Many are retirees dependent on Ukrainian state pension payments. Others are miners and industrial workers whose plants were deeply integrated into the Ukrainian economy.
Mr. Putin’s response has been to step up the aggression. The first five months of 2017 saw a steep increase in attacks on hospitals, schools, factories and other civilian targets, resulting in 44 fatalities. Terrorist bombings and assassinations in Kiev and elsewhere have become commonplace. On June 27 and 28 car bombs killed two colonels from Ukraine’s security service. On June 1 a Russian citizen posing as a correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde shot but failed to kill a Chechen volunteer in the Ukrainian militia. In late March an assassin from Russian-annexed Crimea killed a former Russian parliamentarian and Putin critic who had received asylum in Ukraine.
Russia is also accelerating the integration of occupied Donbas into Russia. On Feb. 18, Mr. Putin issued a decree enabling Russian state and private institutions to accept passports and other identity documents issued by the self-styled DNR and LNR. The Russian press widely promoted the view of Luhansk separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky that the decree is a “step along the path of international recognition of our sovereignty.”
The DNR and LNR economies have begun rapidly converting to the Russian ruble. A further step came March 5, with the confiscation by the “republics” of some 40 major privately held Ukrainian companies. These enterprises had provided employment for locals while paying taxes to Kiev and scrupulously withholding them from the renegade authorities.
Although these “nationalizations”—a war crime under the Geneva Conventions—had been accelerated by an unofficial embargo of trade with the region started by Ukrainian civic activists in January, the swiftness of the confiscations suggested they had long been planned. On the day of the takeovers, senior Russian managers appeared at the “nationalized” workplaces to announce they were taking charge.
In mid-March, Kremlin-controlled media publicized the launch of a “Committee for the Integration of the Donbas and Russia” in Russian-annexed Yalta, Crimea. The Russian media trumpeted a call there by Mr. Plotnitsky for a referendum on the accession of the LNR to Russia.
In early April, Vladimir Pashkov, a former deputy governor of Russia’s Irkutsk region, arrived to administer Eastern Ukraine’s key industrial holdings, according to Russia’s RBK news agency. On April 25 came news that the Russian Parliament was readying legislation backed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to simplify the procedure for granting Russian passports to residents of the occupied Donbas. A group of lawmakers called the Russian Friends of the Donbas announced they would set up centers to assist in the naturalization process.
Russia is also escalating its interference in the internal political life of the rest of Ukraine, including cyberattacks against government and business targets and the use of fifth columns. These steps come from the well-known playbook that Russia used to foment separatism in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. There, too, Russian military forces helped seize territory from a sovereign state, installed Russian advisers, and distributed Russian passports. The Kremlin now recognizes both entities as independent states.
None of this means the Kremlin is irrevocably committed to the permanent separation of the DNR and LNR from Ukraine. What Mr. Putin wants above all is to ensure that whatever the future status of these regions, Moscow, not Kiev, will call the shots. Still, the radical steps Russia is taking, including terrorism, make clear that Mr. Putin seeks to derail the 2015 Minsk II process, even as he points the finger at Ukraine for lack of progress toward peace.
The U.S. and Europe must respond forcefully to this new intensification in Russia’s hybrid war. The engagement of Mr. Volker to shape diplomacy on the Russia-Ukraine conflict signals that the U.S. will adopt a pragmatic hard-line policy. It is a welcome sign that the personal chemistry between Messrs. Trump and Putin won’t override the physics of power politics and diplomacy.
Mr. Karatnycky is Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and co-director of its Ukraine in Europe initiative.