What’s behind Trump’s pressure on Zelensky to work things out with Putin

What’s behind President Trump’s pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to get together with Vladimir Putin and “solve your problem”?

President Trump: And I really hope that Russia — because I really believe that President Putin would like to do something. I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem. That would be a tremendous achievement. And I know you’re trying to do that.\–President Donald J. Trump, Remarks before bi-lateral meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, New York, September 25, 2019.

What is their “problem”?

Their problem started in February 2014 when Vladimir Putin and Russia conducted a military invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula known as “The Crimea”. This military takeover violated the most basic norm in the United Nations Charter, the prohibition of the use of force across international frontiers.

Russia purported to annex the Crimea in March 2014, in flagrant violation of international law and the U.N. Charter. Beginning in April, under the guise of supporting “separatists”, Russia invaded the Eastern Ukraine provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, and effectively seized control of this region, known as the Donbas.

On September 5, 2014, the European Union in response adopted so-called third-stage sanctions against Russia, with similar sanctions being adopted by the United States. These sanctions remain in force.

Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany, in what became known as the “Normandy Format”, agreed to a peace plan known as the Minsk Protocol, also on September 5, 2014. In retrospect, this appeared to be a failed effort by Russia to forestall the adoption of Stage Three sanctions by the E.U. This agreement was modified on September 12, 2015 in what became known as the Minsk II Agreement. Significantly, the Minsk II Agreement was executed on the same date the E.U. voted to renew the Stage Three sanctions against Russia.

Under the Minsk II Agreement, Ukraine agreed to hold regional elections in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces under Ukrainian law, and to grant them a degree of regional autonomy under Ukrainian law.

The quid pro quo for these concessions was Russia’s Agreement to withdraw its forces from the Eastern Ukraine, and to restore control of the Ukrainian-Russian border in these provinces to the government of the Ukraine. There was also a ceasefire to be established.

Since 2015 (and the September 5, 2014 Minsk Protocol), Russia has failed to honor its part of the bargain.

Now Trump has suggested to Zelensky that he work out “their problem” with Putin.

Under enormous pressure from the U.S,, which is a vital source of military support, the Ukraine has moved forward with plans to hold elections in the Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

What is missing so far is Russian withdrawal of its forces and support for the separatists in the Donbas provinces, and its restoration of control over the border to the national government of the Ukraine.

Thus, Trump is pressuring Ukraine to implement he provisions of the Minsk II Agreement which favor Russia, without at the same time pressuring Russia to implement the provisions that favor the Ukraine.

While the elections are to be conducted under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Ukrainian law, Trump’s putting his finger on one side of the scale and not the other sets the stage for voting irregularities in the regional elections—a point on which Russia and the separatists it supports do not have a good record.

The “facts on the ground” after the regional elections, without closing the border and ending Russia’s support for the separatists, will favor Russia and its proxies. Russia can then be expected to push for the lifting of Stage Three sanctions in view of the “progress” made on implementation of the Minsk II Accords.

In short, it appears that Trump has been pressuring Zelensky and Ukraine to further Putin’s objectives, and to lay the basis for the lifting of EU Stage Three sanctions.

See also

“Ukraine Update: Renewal of sanctions, “progress”, and one-sided implementation of Minsk II Agreement (with full text in English”, THe Trenchant Observer, September 2, 2015.

“Minsk II Agreement of February 12, 2015 (with full texts in English and Russian),” The Trenchant Observer, February 12, 2015,

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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