Canada and Europe moved quickly to denounce Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships over the weekend, but there was no official reaction from the United States or President Donald Trump, whose late night and early morning tweets touched on “60 Minutes,” migrants in Mexico and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation but not on the growing tensions in Ukraine.
Kurt Volker, the US special representative for Ukraine negotiations, tweeted his reaction on Sunday, questioning Russia’s assertion that it had been provoked in the incident. But as of Monday morning, the White House and the State Department had still not put out official statements about what is arguably the most provocative incident in Ukraine since a Russian missile downed a Malaysian passenger jet there in 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
“I’m not surprised we haven’t heard anything from the White House yet,” said Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institute. In the past year, she noted, the president has stayed quiet on Russia developments until there is political pressure from within his own party. And the State Department was likely waiting for an expected meeting later Monday of the UN Security Council to put out its own statement.
And while Poland called for additional sanctions on Russia over the seizure of the Ukrainian ships, similar calls had not, at least as of Monday morning, come from the most prominent proponents in Congress of sanctions. One congressional Democratic source said they were waiting for the Ukrainian parliament to meet on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s call for martial law.
“I would hope that this would be an opportunity for Congress to push through more assertive steps,” Polyakova said, noting that legislation already has been proposed that would add political figures, oligarchs, and transactions related to investment in energy projects to the sanctions list.
Poroshenko’s martial law decree still must be approved by parliament, which was considering the move after he agreed to reduce its length from the 60 days he’d originally called for to 30 days, beginning Wednesday. Under Ukrainian law, martial law could restrict the news media and the right of peaceful assembly, though those were not explicitly mentioned in the decree, and some suspect Poroshenko intends to use the measure to delay presidential elections, currently scheduled for March. Poroshenko’s decree did not mention the elections, although the twelfth and final point of the statement was secret.
The State Department also did not respond to a request for comment on the possible imposition of martial law.
The Ukrainian elections are relevant in another sense, too. “Some people have thought that Putin was playing a waiting game in Ukraine, to see who would win next year’s presidential election there — and that he had at least a temporary incentive to tamp down violence,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and former ambassador at large to the Former Soviet Union. “Apparently not.”