A year ago, I was in Kiev when a young Ukrainian soldier was killed. Olesya Baklanova, 19, enlisted in the Ukrainian Armed Forces as soon as she was eligible and fought to be assigned a combat post. Deployed to the front lines of her country’s war against Russia, she was killed during the night while manning an observation post, shot by a sniper stationed among the Russian and proxy forces dug in a few hundred meters way. She was one of four Ukrainian soldiers killed at their post that night — one of the estimated 13,000 soldiers, fighters and civilians killed in eastern Ukraine in the past five years.
Her story was a concise reminder of the realities of Ukraine’s forgotten war. Russian forces seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in early 2014; weeks later, Russia formally annexed the territory. This was an important strategic goal for President Vladimir Putin. To ensure that no one had time to do anything about it — and to further destabilize Ukraine — Russia then launched a war in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas region, using nominal separatists with Russian backing.
Five years on, it’s still a hot war, with Russia constantly pushing forward the line of occupation. Some 1.5 million people have been displaced. The shifting mass of regular and irregular Russian troops in eastern Ukraine — soldiers and mercenaries; “separatist” proxies and militias; a lot of guys with pseudonyms using advanced Russian weaponry that Russia claims must have been bought at the local corner shop (note: it is supplied from Russia) — constantly test and adapt new capabilities, especially electronic warfare capabilities, on the battlefield.
Ukrainian forces, with Western support, have steadily developed new measures to counter whatever is thrown at them. The Ukrainian war effort is defined both by this ingenuity and by sacrifice. The army, left gutted by former President Viktor Yanukovych, was rebuilt entirely in wartime. New units are rotated through areas of heavy fighting to increase their combat experience — a wartime readiness strategy that contributes to spikes in casualties, but which has been enormously successful. The average age of Ukrainian recruits is officially around 36, though anecdotally it’s over 40 at the front, as the generation that remembers life before independence now leads the fight to keep it.
The dirty, confusing, irregular conflict in Ukraine is part of a broader political war waged by the Kremlin. In countless ways, this is the inevitable evolution of Russia’s aggression against its neighbors after Putin paid so little price for invading Georgia in 2008. I worked as an adviser to the Georgian government in the years after that war, and we watched as almost everyone normalized Putin’s behavior, emboldening him to press forward. Now, Russia’s army sniper school has been transferred to the Ukrainian front, training the next generation of elite Russian marksmen by having them pick off Ukrainian soldiers. Soldiers like Baklanova.
This is the necessary context in which Americans should understand the gravity of President Donald Trump’s attempt to strong-arm Ukraine into becoming a subsidiary of his reelection campaign. In one gesture, Trump reduced the survival of Ukraine to a bargaining chip in an utterly petty pursuit; embroiled Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, in scandal and undercut his ability to defend the interests of his nation; and weakened the clout of U.S. leadership on Ukraine, the region and beyond.
The biggest beneficiary of this latest Trump-derived scandal is the Kremlin. This isn’t some theoretical future calculus. It has an immediate impact on U.S. security and our strategic outlook. And it enhances the ability of the Kremlin to keep stirring chaos inside the United States.
Trump is bargaining away U.S. security for conspiracy theories about Ukraine and the Bidens that he hopes will not only strengthen his position for his reelection, but will also erase the evidence that Kremlin intervention helped to elect him president. It’s actually hard to know which part of all this makes the Kremlin most happy. [Continue reading…]