US Defense Secretary James Mattis talks tough on Russia in
US Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday visited Ukraine where he criticized Russia’s aggressive behavior in Eastern Europe. Mattis said that Russia was “seeking to redraw international borders by force” and threatening the sovereignty of Europe. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, though Russia denies sending troops and weapons after violent street protests led to the ouster of the Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovich to be replaced by the pro-West President Petro Poroshenko. Ever since then there has been a Moscow-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 10000 people.
James Mattis said the US government would do what it could to force Russia to give up its territorial aggression in Europe. This was in stark contrast to what President Trump said during and after his election campaign where he apparently was ready to accept Crimea as Russian territory among other talks of appeasement with Russia. However, Mattis said there was no final decision yet till he discussed this with President Trump and with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. However, Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general himself, was personally in agreement to arm the Ukrainian forces with defensive weapons like anti-tank Javelin missiles and anti-air weapons systems which they had been asking Washington to provide for a long time to defend against any future aggression on their territory. Though he said Trump would have the final say on that.
James Mattis said Russia had violated the Minsk ceasefire agreement which was supposed to end the insurgency in Eastern Ukraine and that US-led sanctions on Russia would continue to be enforced. James Mattis visit followed a visit in July by Secretary Tillerson in July. Mattis claims that such defensive weapons are not meant as a threat unless one is an aggressor which Ukraine is not as its fighting on its own soil. So far the Pentagon has provided about $750 million worth of non-lethal aid to Ukraine that includes radar systems and uniforms. President Poroshenko seemed “satisfied” with the discussion and said that he and Mattis also talked about a UN Peacekeeping Force deployed to Eastern Ukraine. Mattis’ was supported by Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, who stressed that the US “must correct its policy towards Ukraine”.
How Russia would react to such a development is yet to be seen but it would probably lead to the opening up of another front in Europe by Russia, possibly in the Baltic states or maybe through Belarus with whom Russia has military exercises planned in September. The exercise will involve more than 100000 troops and training in nuclear warfare. The foreign minister of Estonia warned early this year that Russia might use the cover of this military exercise to base troops permanently in Belarus to defy NATO. Russia has done so in the past when it used military exercises to move troops along its border with Europe.
Eastern European states, especially the Baltic countries, are apprehensive that Trump might withdraw the US security umbrella because most NATO members are not meeting the minimum two percent of GDP spending on defense requirement. Though the US has increased its troop levels in those countries as well as based some new air squadrons and carried out military exercises with these states to defend against a Russian onslaught. The Russians have also fortified their enclave in Kaliningrad with advanced air defense systems like the S-400 and Iskander ballistic missiles.
Russia’s aggression in Europe, like its occupation of South Ossetia from Georgia in the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, is a result of decades of NATO encroachment towards its border that has forced Vladimir Putin to take over Crimea when Ukraine was about to join the EU and NATO. This would lead to Russia losing its only naval base that does not freeze in the winter, at Sevastopol, and also Russia would lose access to the Mediterranean. NATO sits right at Russia’s border and it feels as if it’s being surrounded on all sides by pro-West regimes, Putin is therefore not shy about giving the West a black eye when it comes to fulfilling his quest to restore the glory of the Soviet Union, whose collapse he termed as the greatest disaster in history.