US Weapons and Chinese Cash Compete for Influence in Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine—In the days and weeks after Kyiv celebrated achieving its foreign policy holy grail—the promise of lethal U.S. anti-tank weaponry—China announced a laundry list of new infrastructure projects across Ukraine, pulling back the curtains on what some say is a looming competition for influence in the embattled, post-Soviet state.

“There is indeed an obvious and irresolvable contradiction in the short- and long-term interests being pursued by American and Chinese investment in Ukraine,” Vladislav Davidzon, editor-in-chief of the English-language Odessa Review news magazine, told The Daily Signal.

Amid the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing proxy war in the eastern Donbas region, Chinese infrastructure investments in Ukraine collectively dwarf the total value of the long-awaited U.S. weapons deal.

Those Chinese projects include a $500 million loan from China’s CCEC trading firm—announced Dec. 22, the same day as the U.S. Javelin deal—to finance affordable housing for, among others, Ukrainian war veterans and people displaced by the conflict in the Donbas.

The war in Ukraine is not over. On average, one Ukrainian soldier still dies in combat every three days. (Photos: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

Ukraine’s future is no longer—if it ever was—a binary struggle between a pro-Western and a pro-Russian future.

Now, China is decidedly in the mix, making steady inroads in Ukraine through wide-ranging financial investments and infrastructure projects intended to prepare the country for its role in China’s One Belt, One Road land trade route across Asia to Europe—a mantelpiece of Chinese foreign policy also known as the New Silk Road.

As China’s economic clout in Ukraine grows, it could mean a loss of U.S. influence, some experts say, possibly even playing to Moscow’s advantage.

“If Chinese investment and Russian aggression in Eastern Europe are not matched by corresponding U.S. economic and military measures in coming years, the U.S. and its partners risk ceding influence in the region to hostile revanchist powers,” Franklin Holcomb, a Russia and Ukraine analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Signal in an earlier interview.

Upping the Ante?

Since the outset of Russia’s hybrid war in 2014, Ukrainian officials had been soliciting America for lethal weaponry—the Javelin anti-tank missile in particular—as a way both to defend itself from Russian aggression on the battlefields of the Donbas and to deter Moscow from future offensives.

Former President Barack Obama never approved the move, ostensibly due to fears of escalating the conflict by sparking a tit-for-tat arms race with Russia.

However, after months of deliberation, news broke Dec. 22 that the administration of President Donald Trump had approved a Javelin weapons package for Ukraine reportedly worth $47 million, comprising 210 anti-tank missiles and 35 launchers.

Earlier in December, the Trump administration also approved a $41.5 million deal for Tennessee-based Barrett Firearms Manufacturing to sell Model M107A1 sniper rifles, ammunition, and accessories to Ukraine.

So far, the U.S. weapons deal has not spurred Russian military escalation, as some had feared. Instead—whether by design or by happenstance—there’s been a steady drumbeat of announced Chinese infrastructure projects in Ukraine.

First, news of Chinese company CCEC’s $500 million loan for housing mortgages came Dec. 22, the same day as the Javelin deal.

CCEC also has plans to build a $400 million passenger railway connecting Kyiv with its Boryspil International Airport, as well as an ambitious solar energy farm near the contaminated Chernobyl nuclear energy facility.

Days later, on Dec. 28, Ukraine’s Ministry of Economic Development reported that China and Ukraine had agreed to speed construction of grain elevators, silos, port terminals, highways, and railroads as part of a larger plan to promote renewable energy and improve cooperation between the two countries’ customs authorities.

The same week, the Odesa region signed a cooperation agreement with China’s Jiangxi province—a move reportedly intended to improve transportation infrastructure in the Ukrainian region, the major point of entry for trade with China.

And China Harbor Engineering Co. announced Dec. 29 it had completed dredging 4.4 million cubic meters of soil from Ukraine’s busiest port of Yuzhny. The $38 million project was completed three months ahead of schedule, officials said.

Ukrainian troops say the U.S. Javelin anti-tank missiles will be a morale booster.

“The dredging is a key part of the Ukrainian government strategy to make Yuzhny an important transport hub on the crossroads of global trade and a link in the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative,” the Chinese news site China Daily reported in October.

In the days that followed, Chinese plans for a ring road around Kyiv were announced, along with other Chinese road projects in the vicinity of Ukraine’s capital city.

Chinese companies also have plans to build a $2 billion new metro line in Kyiv.

All of these Chinese projects had been in the works well prior to the Trump administration’s decision on the Javelins, and are not likely to be tit-for-tat Chinese reprisals for the U.S. weapons deal, experts say.

Still, the concurrent timing of the announcements highlights Beijing’s burgeoning economic footprint in Ukraine, and could foreshadow a new geopolitical rivalry unfolding between China and the West over influence in Ukraine.

“The Americans are not putting as much hard capital on the table in terms of long-term investment in infrastructure as the Chinese are, and those lesser publicized investments in grain elevators, highways, and metro lines in Kyiv may play out in ways that the Americans may not like sometime in the future,” said Davidzon, the Odessa Review editor-in-chief.

Overall, bilateral trade between Ukraine and China went up by 17 percent last year, making China Ukraine’s third-largest trading partner behind the European Union and Russia.

China is now the top purchaser of military equipment from Ukraine, totaling $90 million in sales in 2016. And from June 2016 to July 2017, Ukrainian grain supplies to China went up by 11 percent over the preceding one-year period.

For its part, in May 2017, the U.S. Congress approved at least $560 million in financial assistance for Ukraine in fiscal year 2018. The overall sum included more than $410 million for various nonmilitary assistance programs.

On the commercial front, U.S. firms have made inroads in Ukraine in other areas, such as key deals for supplying coal and nuclear fuel supplies—supplanting Russian commercial sources in the process.

Business as Usual

Ukraine and China established their strategic partnership for the New Silk Road project in 2011—a time when Russia still had considerable sway over Ukraine.

At that time, Hu Jintao was president of China and Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych was Ukraine’s president.

In a Dec. 3, 2013, meeting with newly minted Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, Yanukovych pledged increased bilateral ties and laid the groundwork for more Chinese infrastructure projects from 2014 to 2018 in order to integrate Ukraine into China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt.

“Xi said the two countries should work to build a fair and just new international political order, tackle global challenges, and protect mutual interests,” the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported, describing the 2013 meeting between Yanukovych and Xi in Beijing.

That December 2013 meeting between the Chinese and Ukrainian presidents came only two weeks after protests erupted in Kyiv’s central square—the Maidan—over widespread discontent with Yanukovych’s decision to ditch a trade deal with the EU in favor of closer economic ties with Russia.

A Ukrainian soldier in the eastern war zone.

In fact, on Nov. 30, just days prior to the Beijing meeting with Xi, Yanukovych had unleashed his infamous special police force, the Berkut, to violently disperse the Maidan protesters—sparking even more widespread riots the next day.

Those protests eventually swelled to become a full-blown revolution that ended with Yanukovych’s ouster the following February. (He subsequently fled to exile in Russia.)

Yet, the Sino-Ukrainian strategic partnership that the deposed Ukrainian president set in motion has continued without a hiccup under the helm of Ukraine’s post-revolutionary government, even as that same government courts closer ties to its Western partners and follows through on a political and economic divorce from Moscow.

Since its former straw man in Kyiv was the one who originally proposed the idea, a common line of thinking among experts is that Moscow may well see the recent deepening of Sino-Ukrainian relations as a positive development—or, at least a tolerable one.

“While the Russians may not like this dynamic particularly much, Moscow is too dependent on good will from China in strategic and economic terms to do much about it,” Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in European studies at King’s College London, told The Daily Signal.

“The Russians need the Chinese far more than the Chinese need the Russians,” Clarkson said. “There is also a convergence of interests in terms of staving off threats of reform and revolution in two authoritarian regimes. But as the more powerful partner, Beijing can always set the terms of cooperation with Moscow.”

The Bottom Line

One area in which Ukrainian and Chinese relations have evolved significantly since 2014 is the military-industrial sector.

For one, China is now Ukraine’s top buyer of military equipment.

China also has recruited Ukrainian military engineers and scientists for its own military technology programs, putting them to use in myriad ways, including the development of tanks and aviation technology.

Ukraine suspended military sales to Russia in March 2014 in the wake of Russia’s invasion and seizure of Crimea. And the following June, as Russia’s proxy war in the Donbas escalated, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko completely banned cooperation with Russia in the defense sector.

Ukraine’s boosted defense trade with China has, to some degree, supplanted its lost defense business with Russia.

Still, Chinese investments in Ukraine are about a mutual bottom line with no democratic reform quid pro quos (as Western investments typically have). This characteristic appeals to Moscow, some say, despite whatever misgivings Kremlin officials may harbor about losing political sway and business in Ukraine to China.

“I don’t really think any Chinese investment in Ukraine will cause a Beijing-Moscow rift,” Clarkson said.

“For both the Ukrainians and the Chinese, this is purely business, a convergence of economic interests particularly in the transport and agricultural sectors,” he added. “Both sides could potentially make a lot of money from each other, so deals were there to be done whoever is in power in Kyiv.”

Middle Way

Following Ukraine’s pro-Western revolution in 2014, Moscow embarked on a hybrid warfare campaign to retain influence over its former Soviet vassal.

Russia invaded and seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, then launched a proxy conventional war in eastern Ukraine as well as a countrywide hybrid assault comprising cyberattacks and weaponized propaganda.

Since 2014, Russia has fueled the conflict in eastern Ukraine by sending weapons and its own troops to support the proxy separatist territories it controls.

The war is not over. The conflict has so far killed more than 10,300 Ukrainians, and on average, one Ukrainian soldier still dies in combat every three days.

However, Russia’s gambit to re-establish influence in Ukraine has failed. Today’s Ukraine—both in terms of politics and public opinion—is resolutely pro-Western and more anti-Russian than ever.

Nevertheless, Ukraine has paid a heavy price for its post-revolutionary, pro-Western pivot.

Each time Ukraine accepts Western aid, whether financial or military, or takes a step toward furthering ties with the West, it risks the chance of a Russian reprisal.

Whether in the form of artillery barrages in the east or countrywide cyberattacks on utilities and banks, Moscow has used multiple means of aggression since 2014 to destabilize Ukraine’s democratic metamorphosis.

Ukrainian soldiers shelter in a basement during a combined Russian-separatist artillery barrage.

U.S. support has helped Ukraine defend itself from Russian aggression and keep its reforms on track despite Moscow’s myriad means of interference.

“In the short term, the diplomatic, economic, military, and political support proffered by the Americans is certainly irreplaceable, and is what ensures that the state does not collapse, though all such overt support is obviously an irritant to Russia,” Davidzon said.

Russia doesn’t see China as a zero-sum game competitor for influence in Ukraine like it does the West. Moreover, going toe-to-toe with China over Ukraine ultimately would not be in Moscow’s overall best interests.

So, some say that Chinese investments could offer Ukraine a “middle way” to rebuild its economy without provoking further Russian retribution.

“Big deals between Ukraine and China will neither draw Beijing away from Moscow nor Moscow from Beijing,” Clarkson said. “It’s all strictly business.”

Still, others argue that China’s increased clout in Ukraine ultimately will be Russia’s loss.

“The fact remains that China and Russia are strategic competitors in the long term, and China has no interest in Russia’s projecting military power into Eastern Europe,” Michael Druckman, resident program director for Ukraine at the International Republican Institute, a U.S. think tank, told The Daily Signal.

Hearts and Minds

After four years of constant combat, about 60,000 Ukrainian troops remain engaged in a static, trench warfare conflict against a combined force of about 35,000 pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries, and Russian regulars.

The war is mostly fought at a distance using indirect fire weapons like artillery, rockets, and mortars. Snipers also frequently engage targets across no man’s land, which can vary in width from a few kilometers in some places to others where the two sides are so close they can shout insults to one another.

Conventional combat operations are confined along a 250-mile-long front line in Ukraine’s embattled southeastern Donbas region. Although, Russia’s hybrid tactics—like cyberwarfare and weaponized propaganda—affect the entire country.

Tactically, the U.S. Javelins will give the Ukrainian troops a potent defense against Russian armor on the battlefields of the Donbas.

Still, the delivery of U.S. anti-tank weaponry won’t likely affect the overall outcome of the war, nor will it give Ukraine the means to parry a full-blown Russian invasion. The move will, however, make any Russia escalations of the current conflict much costlier in terms of casualties and destroyed military hardware.

Beyond their battlefield utility, the Javelins are a potent moral booster for Ukrainian troops enduring their fourth straight Continental winter in the trenches. And, above all, together with the authorization for the sale of U.S. sniper rifles to Ukraine, U.S. lethal weapons deliveries are a foreign policy home run for Kyiv.

Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president, touted Trump’s decision to send Ukraine Javelins as “a transatlantic vaccination against the Russian virus of aggression.”

Game-Changer

Chinese investments, on the other hand, are a less diplomatically glitzy win for Ukraine.

However, in the long run, Ukraine’s key role in China’s One Belt, One Road trade route could be a real game-changer for its economy.

During a Dec. 5 visit to Kyiv, Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai announced plans for $7 billion in joint projects between China and Ukraine. In turn, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman announced that 2019 would be the “year of China” in Ukraine.

“China has been and still remains our strategic partner and our strategic priority,” Groysman said after the meeting with Kai.

Although many experts say Russian and Chinese interests in Ukraine are more or less complementary, there have been intimations that Ukraine might leverage its new economic relationship with Beijing to put pressure on Moscow to back off its aggression.

A quiet moment in the eastern Ukrainian war zone.

For instance, Poroshenko issued a statement after Kai’s December visit in which the Ukrainian president stressed “the importance of China’s adhering to the consistent position of respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.”

For China, its burgeoning influence in Ukraine could provide an opportunity to play peacemaker with Moscow—a move that would upstage longstanding U.S. and European efforts to end the conflict.

“With its investments, China becomes friends with everyone in Ukraine,” Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia, a corporate consultant and researcher who specializes in Asia, told The Daily Signal.

“[China] can then advise both parties wisely to avoid an escalation of the situation while keeping in mind that it needs stability in the region for its own geo-economic goals—such as the New Silk Road,” Er-Rafia said. “And, since China is a member of the U.N. Security Council, China can also be a part of the solution to the Ukrainian issue, showing the world once again that China is a key player in Eurasia and beyond.”

No Strings Attached

Ukraine is haltingly evolving away from a Russia-style, post-Soviet kleptocracy. But the allure of no-strings-attached Chinese cash could dampen the imperative for making reforms that Western aid packages, through their pro-reform riders, have tried to foster.

Recently, Ukraine has taken a few jabs from its Western partners for its halting reforms.

The European Union announced Dec. 1 that it was withholding the final 600 million-euro (about $718 million) tranche of a larger 1.8 billion-euro (about $2.2 billion) financial assistance package to Ukraine due to insufficient reform progress.

And a U.S. congressional authorization for $500 million worth of military aid for Ukraine in fiscal year 2018 is contingent on a determination by the U.S. secretary of defense “that Ukraine has taken substantial action to make defense institutional reforms critical to sustaining capabilities developed using security assistance.”

For Kyiv, then, another potential bright side to China’s economic investments is that they don’t come with a to-do list of reforms.

“The Chinese government also does not care about the Ukrainians making difficult decisions and meeting reform targets to access those funds, which makes them an attractive investor in many ways,” said Davidzon, the Odessa Review editor-in-chief.

Conversely, some experts see reason to celebrate the convergence of Western and Chinese economic interests in Ukraine.

One line of thinking is that Ukraine’s pro-Western momentum is irreversible and the process of courting international investments—whether from the West or from China—will incentivize Kyiv to follow through on its reform agenda for the sake of creating a more investor-friendly environment.

“I believe Ukraine’s future is now firmly planted in the West and that America and the EU remain its most important partners,” said Druckman, the resident program director for Ukraine at the International Republican Institute.

“Ukraine’s ability to fight corruption and strengthen rule of law through good governance will make it a stronger and more reliable partner for foreign investment, including Chinese, rather than one based on corruption and the lack of accountable governance,” Druckman said.

The post US Weapons and Chinese Cash Compete for Influence in Ukraine appeared first on The Daily Signal.

Trump Approves US Lethal Weapons Sales to Ukraine, Angering Moscow

KYIV, Ukraine—U.S. President Donald Trump has approved the sale of commercial lethal weapons to Ukraine, a pivotal decision that comes amid an escalation of Russia’s ongoing proxy war in the country’s embattled eastern Donbas region.

Trump has reportedly approved a $41.5 million deal for Tennessee-based Barrett Firearms Manufacturing to sell Model M107A1 sniper rifles, ammunition, and accessories to Ukraine.

For years, Ukraine has requested U.S. lethal weapons to defend against Russian aggression. News of the U.S. weapons deal was therefore celebrated as a sign of solidarity and, hopefully, a bellwether for more robust American military support in the future.

“The Ukrainian people congratulate President Trump’s decision to sell sniper systems to our army. We hope this is the first step and will follow other, more weighty ones,” said Timur Kobzar, a Ukrainian volunteer who has ferried supplies out to soldiers on the front lines since the war began.

Ukrainian sniper Volodymyr Pavlovich on the front lines in Pisky. (Photos: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

“This is not just a good solution, this is a beautiful, long-awaited decision for Ukraine,” Kobzar told The Daily Signal. “When you have a strong friend behind you, you have more chances to defeat the enemy. And this is exactly the case.”

The reaction from Moscow to the U.S.-Ukraine rifle deal was swift and pointed. On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it a “dead-end technique, which would unleash bloodshed again,” the Russian government-owned news site TASS reported.

Some say the weapons deal, which is limited to commercial sales of small arms and light weapons, could be the opening salvo of a full-blown diplomatic about-face by the Trump White House, which would ultimately reverse the Obama administration’s longtime refusal to arm Ukraine.

Others, however, see the move as a diplomatic shot across the Kremlin’s bow by the Trump administration intended to pressure Moscow to de-escalate its ongoing proxy war in Ukraine, while simultaneously reassuring Kyiv about the longevity of U.S. support.

“In addition to practical applications of these weapons there is also an important symbolism attached to this decision,” Luke Coffey, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Foreign Policy Center, told The Daily Signal. “It sends the right message to friend and foe that the U.S. is serious on trans-Atlantic security and that President Trump doesn’t dither in these tough decisions.”

Useful and Symbolic

After four years of constant combat, about 60,000 Ukrainian troops remain engaged in a static, trench warfare conflict against a combined force of about 35,000 pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries, and Russian regulars.

The war is mostly fought at a distance using indirect fire weapons like artillery, rockets, and mortars. Snipers also frequently engage targets across no man’s land, which can vary in width from a few kilometers in some places, to other spots where the two sides are so close they can shout insults to one another.

While the Kremlin denies its hand in the war and Ukrainian officials officially refer to the conflict as an “anti-terror operation,” the two erstwhile allies have been locked in a de facto state of war since early 2014.

President Donald Trump has approved the commercial sale of U.S.-made sniper rifles to Ukraine.

The conflict is moderated in scale and intensity, and locked geographically, by the terms of the Minsk II cease-fire. Heavy weapons above a certain caliber are banned within an agreed-upon buffer zone on either side of the front lines.

Nevertheless, the fighting goes on. And on average, one Ukrainian soldier still dies every three days.

The Barrett M107A1 is a newly unveiled, .50-caliber extreme-range sniper rifle developed with asymmetric warfare in mind, integrating battlefield lessons learned from U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Based on U.S. Army testing, the rifle is capable of penetrating up to 1.18 inches of steel plate from 2,000 meters.

Front-line Ukrainian soldiers say the M107A1 will be well suited for the kinds of long-distance battles they currently face in the Donbas.

“It will definitely help us because most engagements are more than 500 meters from trench to trench, it even goes up to 2 kilometers,” said Anton Kolomoets, a 22-year-old soldier in the Ukrainian National Guard Azov Regiment, currently deployed outside the city of Mariupol at the southern end of the front lines.

Kolomoets told The Daily Signal that soldiers in his unit modify Soviet-era DShK machine guns with accessories bought off the internet—like advanced scopes, bipods, and new stocks—to fill the role of advanced, long-distance sniper rifles like the M107A1.

“This stuff is not as accurate as we need,” Kolomoets said of the modified Soviet weapons.

Volodymyr Pavlovich, a 31-year-old former Ukrainian sniper who served with the Ukrainian army’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade in the front-line town of Pisky, said he used a 1969 Soviet Dragunov sniper rifle in combat.

Ukrainian sniper Volodymyr Pavlovich on patrol in eastern Ukraine.

“It allowed me to work confidently up to 800 meters under excellent meteorological conditions,” Pavlovich told The Daily Signal. “In some cases, this old rifle did just a miracle.”

For his part, Pavlovich welcomed Trump’s approval of M107A1 sales to Ukraine, adding that if Ukrainian soldiers can actually use it in combat (he worried the weapons might come with U.S.-imposed restrictions against front-line use in the Donbas), the American sniper rifle would “surely save many lives of Ukrainian soldiers.”

“And the very fact that the United States officially supports the Ukrainian army strongly demoralizes Russian soldiers,” Pavlovich added.

Beyond its battlefield utility, the U.S. weapons deal is a morale booster for Ukrainian troops as they endure their fourth consecutive winter at war against Russia and its separatist proxies.

“Of course this is a good decision,” Dmitry Dybus, a 23-year-old active-duty Ukrainian army soldier currently deployed to the eastern war zone, told The Daily Signal in an email, referring to the U.S. weapons deal.

“It will be a small, but really important step to re-arming the armed forces of Ukraine,” Dybus said. “And of course, it will be nice to stand in defense of the entire civilized world side by side with [the United States].”

Baby Steps

In a Wednesday opinion piece for The Washington Post, Josh Rogin, a columnist for that paper, called the Trump administration’s authorization to sell Ukraine the M107A1 “the first ever U.S. commercial sale of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine,” adding that it was “a clear break from the de facto U.S. ban on arms sales that dates back to the Obama administration.”

However, the Texas-based weapons manufacturer AirTronic USA has been selling and shipping precision shoulder-fired rocket launchers, or PSRLs, to Ukraine since 2016, according to news reports.

In a Nov. 22 interview with Voice of America’s Ukraine service news site, Richard Vandiver, president and chief operating officer of AirTronic USA, said his company had acquired a DDTC DSP-5 export license from the U.S. Department of State to sell and ship its weapons to Ukraine.

Shrapnel damage in eastern Ukraine.

“We started to deliver our goods to Ukraine last year, we continue to deliver to this day,” Vandiver told Voice of America.

The AirTronic PSRL is an analogue of the Soviet RPG-7, a rocket-propelled grenade, with a range of about 1,000 meters.

Both the AirTronic PSRL and the Barrett M107A1 rifle require government approval to be sold abroad.

Canada also recently announced it will issue licenses to its defense contractors to sell weapons to Ukraine.

Like the Canadian decision, the one announced by the U.S. this week is not a direct shipment of weapons to Ukraine from the U.S. government. Rather, it is the issuance of a State Department license to a U.S. commercial manufacturer to sell weapons to Ukraine.

Cold Winter, Hot War

So far, more than 10,300 Ukrainians have died in the conflict, including more than 2,500 civilians. The war—Europe’s only ongoing one—has also displaced about 1.7 million people.

On Monday, combined Russian-separatist forces unleashed a Grad rocket attack on the Ukrainian-controlled village of Novoluhanske in the Donbas, where more than 3,700 people live, including more than 500 children.

The Russian rockets damaged about 50 buildings, including a school and a kindergarten.

“At least 40 rockets hit the village’s residential area, wounding eight civilians, including six senior women and a 6-year-old child,” Col. Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a Ukrainian Ministry of Defense spokesman, told reporters Tuesday in Kyiv.

The war in Ukraine has become a long-range conflict, in which soldiers hardly ever see their enemies.

“A lot of people think that this has somehow turned into a sleepy, frozen conflict and it’s stable, and now we have … a cease-fire. It’s a problem but it’s not a crisis,” Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy for the Ukraine conflict, said Wednesday in Washington, following the Novoluhanske rocket attack.

“That’s completely wrong,” Volker said. “It is a crisis. This has been the most violent year, 2017, and frankly, last night was one of the most violent nights, certainly since February, and possibly this year.”

The Novoluhanske attack also damaged power lines and a gas pipeline, spurring a temporary heating and electricity outage—a potentially lethal proposition as Ukraine’s harsh continental winter sets in, routinely dipping temperatures double digits below zero Celsius.

A War by Any Other Name

The Novoluhanske attack is part of an overall escalation of the conflict.

International monitors in Ukraine reported a 35 percent increase in cease-fire violations the week of Dec. 11 to 17.

This latest spike in the war is part of a cyclical pattern of escalation and de-escalation that the Kremlin has maintained for years as a diplomatic hedge to keep Ukraine—a former Soviet vassal of Moscow’s—from integrating too quickly and deeply with the West.

Apart from the increased violence, this week Russian officials pulled out from a key negotiating format with Ukraine intended to implement the cease-fire called the Joint Center for Control and Coordination, or JCCC.

“I can emphasize that the danger of the conflict’s escalation is, unfortunately, increasing,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday, according to a statement published to his administration’s website.

Rhetoric from Washington has noticeably stepped up in recent weeks as the war has escalated, calling out the Kremlin for its role in the conflict. For its part, the Kremlin continues to deny its role in the war.

After almost four years of war, U.S. weapons would be a morale booster for Ukrainian soldiers.

U.S. officials say the peace process is stuck in purgatory so long as Russian officials are not willing to admit, privately or publicly, that their troops and weapons are in Ukraine.

“Russia withdrew its officers from JCCC—a ceasefire implementation tool—right before a massive escalation in ceasefire violations. Ukraine just suffered some of the worst fighting since February, 2017,” Volker wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

“Decision for peace lies with Russia,” Volker added in the tweet.

Some see Trump’s approval of commercial sniper rifle sales to Ukraine as part of a measured, long-term pushback against Moscow for its continued stonewalling on a workable peace deal in Ukraine.

“There is an unrecognized dimension to Trump’s foreign policy in that he seems more than willing to play the long game on some foreign policy challenges,” James Carafano, vice president for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal.

“I think this decision signals he is willing to stick with Ukraine for the long-term—not on an incremental or escalatory fashion, but with sustained commitment and presence over time,” Carafano said. “In that respect, perhaps this is a game-changer, and is certainly a marked, and welcome, change from previous administrations.”

The post Trump Approves US Lethal Weapons Sales to Ukraine, Angering Moscow appeared first on The Daily Signal.

Why the War in Ukraine Matters to America

KYIV, Ukraine—And it goes on and on in eastern Ukraine. Every day and every night. There’s never any end to the artillery, the rockets, the snipers.

Or the killing.

The war in Ukraine has so far killed more than 10,300 Ukrainians, including at least 2,523 civilians, according to the United Nations.

“After three and a half years, we are sadly further away from resolution than ever. The end seems not in sight,” Alexander Hug, principal deputy chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, told reporters Friday in Kyiv via Skype.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, is the multinational group charged with monitoring the cease-fire in Ukraine, known as Minsk II.

Like any war, the one in Ukraine is full of sad stories. There’s been no end to those, either.

The unlucky civilians killed by forgotten land mines, like the four who died when their minivan drove over a mine on Feb. 10, 2016, as they waited at a checkpoint to leave separatist-controlled territory.

Or, the grandmother on her way home from the market in the front-line town of Avdiivka on Feb. 1, struck down by shrapnel from a mortar. The 24-year-old daughter left kneeling in the snow over her mother’s body.

Ukrainians protest against corruption in central Kyiv—most Ukrainians consider corruption to be a threat to their country on par with that of Russia’s proxy war in the east. (Photos: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

The two children who became orphans in Avdiivka on May 13 when a shell landed in the front yard of their home while their parents were outside talking to a neighbor.

The seven civilians killed when a Russian Grad rocket attack pummeled a funeral procession in the town of Sartana on Oct. 14, 2014.

The 19-year-old volunteer soldier whose mother begged him not to go to war, killed by a Russian mortar that landed in his trench in the town of Pisky on Aug. 6, 2015.

The 298 people whose bodies fell to the earth in a lonely field in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, after a Russian surface-to-air missile shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

And it goes on and on.

“The situation in Ukraine, unfortunately, is not getting any better and so we’re talking about it once again,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert reportedly told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.

“The United States continues to be deeply concerned by the escalating violence and the worsening humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine,” Nauert said. “The decision to end the violence in eastern Ukraine and secure better relations with the United States and the international community lies squarely with Russia.”

A Forgotten War on Europe’s Doorstep

The war in Ukraine hardly makes the headlines anymore, if it ever did.

The war is not a particularly big one. Conventional combat operations are confined along a static, 250-mile-long front line in Ukraine’s embattled southeastern Donbas region. Although, Russia’s hybrid tactics—like cyberwarfare and weaponized propaganda—affect the entire country.

Nor is the Ukraine war the most deadly in the world today. The more than 10,300 Ukrainians who have so far died in the conflict pale in comparison to the approximately 400,000 people who have reportedly died in the six years of the Syrian war.

Yet, it is a war—the only ongoing one in Europe, in fact.

And if one were to draw a line back to the origins of Russia’s current hybrid conflict against the West, it would lead straight to the war in Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers comprise all generations.

“This is the front line of new generation warfare,” retired U.S. Army Gen. Jack Keane said of the war in Ukraine at a talk in Kyiv on Monday.

Russia invaded and seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, and then launched a proxy war in eastern Ukraine the following April.

In turn, the United States and the European Union levied punitive economic sanctions on Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine.

Since then, relations between Russia and the West have hit a post-Cold War nadir.

Using cyberwarfare and an empire of weaponized propaganda, Russia has since 2014 embarked on a hybrid war blitz against Western democracies intended to undercut the stability of the post-World War II world order, in which the U.S. and its democratic allies have steered the course of history.

“Russia clearly is dangerous, very capable, and has significant geopolitical ambitions that are on a collision course with the international order; as we had for more than 70 years,” said Keane, who is chairman of the board at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

On Wednesday, the EU announced it is extending its sanctions against Russia for at least six more months.

In a post on his official Facebook page, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the EU’s sanctions extension “an important political decision by the leaders of the European Union to continue economic sanctions against Russia for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity and unwillingness to stop hybrid aggression against our country.”

A History of Violence

The Ukraine conflict began in April 2014 when Russian intelligence agents and special operations forces orchestrated a separatist uprising in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, spawning two breakaway republics.

In the intervening years, Russia has fanned and sustained the conflict by supplying its two proxy territories in the Donbas with weapons shipments and sending its own troops into combat against Ukrainian forces.

The Soviet legacy is still evident in many places in Ukraine.

Consequently, Russia and Ukraine have been in a de facto state of war for nearly four years. Be that as it may, Moscow denies its involvement in the war, and Kyiv, for its part, calls its military operations in the Donbas an “anti-terrorist” operation.

“Russia initiated and continues to fuel the war in eastern Ukraine,” Harry Kamian, chargé d’affaires, a.i. of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE, told the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on Thursday.

“The Russian Federation has the ability to end the violence,” Kamian added.

After four years of constant combat, about 60,000 Ukrainian troops remain engaged in a static, trench warfare conflict against a combined force of about 35,000 pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries, and Russian regulars.

It’s a long-distance conflict, mainly fought with indirect fire weapons, in which the opposing camps rarely see each other.

The war, while not over, is moderated in intensity and scale by the February 2015 Minsk II cease-fire. Among other measures, the cease-fire agreement proscribes heavy weapons above certain calibers within a buffer zone on either side of the contact line. Yet, those banned weapons are still used daily.

“We have seen more violence, less implementation of the Minsk agreements,” said Hug, the OSCE’s point man in Ukraine, adding that the two sides of the conflict are “not closer to ending this violence.”

“They are, in fact, further away than ever,” Hug said.

Whodunit

So far this year, OSCE cease-fire monitors have recorded more than 325,000 cease-fire violations in Ukraine, including 27,000 violations that involved the use of heavy weapons proscribed from the front lines by Minsk II.

Separatist officials claim Ukrainian government forces are the aggressors.

Yet, according to the OSCE, combined Russian-separatist forces commit the majority of cease-fire violations. Ukrainian forces say that when they break the cease-fire, they do so in self-defense.

This week, U.S. officials’ rhetoric underscored a growing frustration in Washington with Moscow’s role in the Ukraine conflict, particularly as conditions on the ground in the Donbas continue to deteriorate.

“We again call on Russia to stop artillery and rocket attacks against Ukrainian civilian areas and to honor the cease-fire called for in the Minsk agreements,” Nauert, the State Department spokesperson, said Wednesday in Washington.

At an OSCE Foreign Ministers meeting this week in Vienna, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson unequivocally called out Russia’s role in the Ukraine conflict.

“We should be clear about the source of this violence,” Tillerson said Thursday in Vienna. “Russia is arming, leading, training, and fighting alongside anti-government forces.”

Tillerson singled out the war in Ukraine as the paramount obstacle for U.S.-Russian relations.

“The issue that stands in the way is Ukraine,” Tillerson said, adding: “We can have differences in other arenas, in Syria. We can have differences in other areas. But when one country invades another, that is a difference that is hard to look past or to reconcile.”

In Moscow, officials maintained their line that Russia was not involved in the war.

“Russia is not present on the territory of Donbas, that’s why we consider that such words are inappropriate and wrong,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday, according to the Russian news site TASS.

Unfinished Business

As the conflict in the Donbas goes into its fifth calendar year, its direct effects remain geographically quarantined from the rest of the country.

Ukraine is not a country at war. Russia’s proxy separatist territories comprise roughly 5 percent of Ukraine’s total landmass, and the war’s physical consequences only extend beyond the contact line as far as the range of the weapons used.

In cities hundreds of miles distant from the front lines, you’d hardly know this was the country in which Europe’s only land war is ongoing.

Life goes on. After all, for most Ukrainians not living in the war zone, the country’s post-revolution economic downturn and the tumbling value of the national currency have been more painful burdens to bear than the war.

A protest in central Kyiv on Dec. 5 underscores simmering discontent in Ukraine for a lack of progress on anti-corruption reforms.

Polling suggest that many Ukrainians see lingering governmental corruption as a threat on par with Russia’s proxy war in the Donbas.

According to an August poll by the International Republican Institute, a Washington think tank, 51 percent of Ukrainians surveyed rated corruption within state bodies as one of the three top issues facing the country, tied with the military conflict in the Donbas at 50 percent.

Meanwhile, what was once an acute humanitarian crisis in the eastern war zone has devolved into a long-term catastrophe.

For one, people keep dying. The United Nations reported 544 conflict-related civilian casualties, including 98 deaths, in the Donbas from Jan. 1 to Nov. 15 this year—a 3.6 percent increase over the same period in 2016.

This year’s number of civilian deaths, however, has so far gone up by 11 percent from 2016.

Damage after a protest in Kyiv on Dec. 5.

“The humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine is … the worst it has been now in three years and it is deteriorating,” Nauert said Wednesday. “More than 1 million people in Donbas region are food insecure, civilian casualties are up significantly over last year.”

Land mines and booby traps have become a lethal threat for civilians, accounting for more than half of civilian casualties this year. According to a Nov. 17 United Nations report, at least 600,000 Ukrainians live in “mine-contaminated” areas.

“Ukraine is fast becoming one of the world’s most mine-contaminated countries,” the report said.

Powderkeg

Since 2014, Eastern Europe has militarized at record pace to defend against what countries in the region perceive to be an existential military threat posed by a revanchist Russia.

“Eastern Europe is expected to be the fastest-growing region in the world in 2018 in terms of defense spending,” Craig Caffrey, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s, told The Daily Signal.

“Russian actions in Ukraine have been the catalyst,” Caffrey said, adding that by next year, defense spending among the three Baltic states will have more than doubled in real terms compared with 2014 levels.

Between 2014 and 2017 Eastern European defense spending rose by 34 percent in real terms, which is the largest increase of any region in the world.

“Most of the new money is going into modernization and readiness, so this will have a direct impact on military capabilities throughout the region,” Caffrey said.

Ukraine, for its part, has rebuilt its armed forces into the second-biggest standing army in Europe, with about 250,000 active-duty troops and tens of thousands more in reserves. In terms of manpower, only Russia’s military is bigger among European countries.

Ukraine has a long way to go to modernize its military arsenals and institutions to be on par with NATO countries. Poroshenko, however, has set a deadline for the year 2020 to do just that.

In 2017, Ukraine’s defense spending represented 6 percent of its gross domestic product—well surpassing NATO’s minimum defense spending benchmark of 2 percent of GDP. That’s a sharp jump from 2012, when Ukraine spent the equivalent of about 0.6 percent of its GDP on defense.

On average, a Ukrainian soldier dies every three days in the eastern war zone.

And, according to Ukrainian news reports, Ukraine’s 2018 budget calls for a 28 percent increase in defense spending over 2017—up to $6.1 billion in total.

Despite the boost, Ukraine’s projected 2018 defense and security budget is roughly the price tag of one U.S. Navy Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.

Caffrey pointed out that Ukraine would have to spend roughly 40 percent of its GDP on defense to match Russia’s defense budget, forecast to come in at around $47.13 billion in 2018, according to IHS Jane’s.

“From a defense spending perspective, I don’t think Ukraine is trying to become a counterweight to Russia, largely because that’s unachievable given the disparity between the Russian and Ukrainian economies,” Caffrey said.

Still, Ukraine’s upped defense spending underscores how the country now sees Russia as a long-term military adversary—a falling out between the two post-Soviet countries and erstwhile allies that has sent shockwaves across the region.

“The Western community must avoid viewing the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine as a singular military crisis. Rather it should view it as a symptom of wider regional geopolitical and economic issues,” Franklin Holcomb, a Russia and Ukraine analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Signal.

Russia’s “little green men” invasion of Crimea in 2014 could be a bellwether for the kind of offensive military operation Russia would conduct against NATO’s Baltic member countries.

Consequently, U.S. military forces in Europe are leaning forward to anticipate how Russia might integrate multiple war-fighting domains into a combined hybrid offensive.

A U.S. Army exercise in Estonia in 2015, underscoring U.S. commitment to defend its NATO allies from Russian aggression.

At a training exercise in Estonia this June, for example, U.S. Air Force A-10 “Warthog” warplanes landed on a rural highway, simulating an airfield seizure operation. At the same time, U.S. and Estonian cyberwarfare personnel at a nearby air base simulated defending against a cyberattack on the A-10s’ maintenance software.

The interwoven use of a Cold War-era weapons system like the A-10 with cyber operations foreshadows the kind of complex, multidimensional defensive combat tactics the U.S. and its NATO allies need to develop to counter Russian hybrid warfare threats.

According to NATO’s collective defense agreement, an attack against a member state is considered to be an attack against all NATO allies. Meaning a Russian attack on one of the three Baltic countries, which are all NATO members, would spur a U.S. military response.

Parting Thought

As U.S. military forces in Europe repaint their desert tan equipment in forest green, there’s a feeling of déjà vu among those few troops who can remember the Cold War.

Similarly, as the intermittent rattle of machine guns and the sporadic crack of artillery thunders across the frosted plains of eastern Ukraine, one remembers that just two generations ago this land was the deadliest battlefield of the deadliest war in human history.

The current war in Ukraine is nothing less than a sword of Damocles suspended over Eastern Europe, threatening to spark a larger conflagration.

While covering the Spanish Civil War in 1938, the American author Ernest Hemingway wrote an article in which he commented on a series of photos of fallen Spanish Republican soldiers who had died fighting against nationalist forces supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

“Perhaps,” Hemingway wrote, “these pictures will make it seem a little more real. Because these pictures are what you will look like if we let the next war come.”

World War II began the next year, and more than 400,000 Americans died in it.

Tonight, there are roughly 60,000 Ukrainian troops deployed in the frigid trenches and embattled front-line villages of eastern Ukraine.

When the sun goes down on this night, the tracers will cut across the dark sky up and down the 250-mile-long front line. War-weary soldiers and civilians will hunker down in trenches and in cellars, staving off the cold and the fear as they have for four winters now.

There’s a 1 in 3 chance a Ukrainian soldier will die tonight on that lonely, frigid battlefield at the hands of a Russian weapon. There’s a good chance a civilian will be killed or wounded tonight, too.

The war goes on and on. When, and where, will it end?

The post Why the War in Ukraine Matters to America appeared first on The Daily Signal.

As China Invests in Ukraine, Russia Stands to Gain

KYIV, Ukraine—A top Chinese official visited Kyiv this week to announce a host of new infrastructure projects and investments in Ukraine, underscoring a burgeoning economic relationship between the two countries that could nudge Kyiv away from the West—a scenario that would ultimately benefit Moscow, some say.

“Russian-Chinese relations have no reason to diverge over Ukraine, particularly in the short term,” Franklin Holcomb, a Russia and Ukraine analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told The Daily Signal.

“An acceptable end state for both countries would likely be a Ukraine that is under Russian political and military influence, is being rebuilt with Chinese funds, and serves as a conduit for Chinese influence to Europe, where Western influence is minimized,” Holcomb said.

Ukraine is at the nexus of a spider’s web of geopolitical interests, including those of Russia, the United States, the European Union—and now China.

Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai (third from the left) addresses the third session of the China-Ukraine Intergovernmental Commission in Kyiv, Ukraine, Dec. 5, 2017. (Photo: Xinhua/Sipa USA/Newscom)

For its part, Beijing has ramped up its investments in Ukraine to prepare Ukraine’s transportation infrastructure for its role as a portal into Europe for China’s proposed One Belt, One Road overland trade route across Asia.

“China has been and still remains our strategic partner and our strategic priority,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said Tuesday after a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai, who was in Kyiv for talks.

Following Tuesday’s meeting in Kyiv, Kai told reporters, “We consider Ukraine as one of the logistics and industrial hubs on the way to the European Union.”

Also known as the “New Silk Road,” the One Belt, One Road initiative is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy mantelpiece. Accordingly, Beijing wants Ukraine to become a stable, reliable partner through which Chinese goods can flow into Europe.

To that end, during his visit to Kyiv, Kai announced plans for $7 billion in joint projects between China and Ukraine. In turn, Groysman announced that 2019 would be the “year of China” in Ukraine.

Synergy

Meanwhile, Ukraine and Russia have been in a de facto state of war for almost four years, dating back to Russia’s March 2014 invasion and seizure of Crimea.

A Russian-sponsored proxy war continues to simmer in eastern Ukraine. The February 2015 cease-fire, known as Minsk II, has failed. The war is now a low-intensity, static, trench warfare conflict in which, on average, one Ukrainian soldier dies every three days. So far, the war has killed more than 10,200 Ukrainians.

Moscow wants to weaken Ukraine economically and politically to forestall its Western pivot—particularly any aspirations of Ukraine one day joining the EU or NATO.

At first take, Russia and China appear to have conflicting interests in Ukraine. Yet, many experts say that’s not necessarily the case.

Russia wants to limit Western influence in Ukraine. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

“China at odds with Russia in Ukraine? Not at all,” Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia, a corporate consultant and researcher who specializes in Asia, told The Daily Signal.

“On the contrary, China is not competing with Russia over Ukraine,” Er-Rafia said. “They are working in synergy in Ukraine.”

One line of thinking is that China would ultimately prefer Ukraine to be in Russia’s orbit rather than the West’s. And the level of instability in Ukraine due to Russian aggression is not likely to rattle Chinese investors, who are well acquainted with doing business in risky markets.

“There are differences between Russia and China but their interests are not mutually exclusive,” said Steven Tsang, associate fellow at Chatham House and director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.

“Beijing is supportive of Russia’s efforts to strain Ukraine’s relations with the West, though it also prefers Ukraine not to be so destabilized that it becomes bad for Chinese business,” Tsang told The Daily Signal. “The existing level of pressure Russia is putting on Ukraine is not sufficient to get the Chinese government deeply concerned.”

Plan B

Russian influence in Ukraine evaporated after the 2014 Maidan revolution overthrew Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych—a Kremlin ally who dutifully fled to exile in Russia after his ouster.

Russia’s subsequent hybrid war gambit to obstruct Ukraine’s turn to the West has backfired.

Anti-Russian sentiments have skyrocketed within Ukrainian society and its politics. Rolls of toilet paper adorned with the likeness of Russian President Vladimir Putin have been a staple among street merchants in Kyiv since 2014.

One telling signal of the Russo-Ukrainian split has been the renaissance of Ukraine’s military, which was a broken force prior to 2014.

To counter Russia, Ukraine has since rebuilt its armed forces into Europe’s second-biggest in terms of active-duty ranks (second only to Russia’s), singling out Russia as the “aggressor nation” in the process. The end goal of Ukraine’s military rebuild is to meet NATO interoperability standards by the year 2020.

On the economic front, Ukraine has undergone a purge of all things Russian since the 2014 revolution.

Although, the Kyiv Post reported in March that Russia remains Ukraine’s top export destination and biggest foreign investor.

Of note, Ukraine has completely weaned itself off of Russian natural gas, as well as Russian-made parts for its military equipment—no small feats for the post-Soviet country.

Moscow may not be able to re-establish its direct influence over Ukraine in the current political climate. So, from the Russian perspective, a Ukraine economically beholden to China might be the next best option to forestall Ukraine’s pro-Western transformation.

“Russia’s strategic goal is to pull Ukraine as a whole from European influence,” Er-Rafia said. “To achieve this goal, Russia encourages China to invest in Ukraine … China is helping Russia to keep Ukraine in its zone of influence.”

Made in China

The post-revolution economic divorce between Russia and Ukraine has left Ukraine looking for new markets in which to sell its goods, as well as new foreign investors to jump-start its economy.

In both respects, China has proven to be a lucrative alternative to Russia. Although, swapping China for Russia may not be the economic emancipation Ukraine is looking for.

“A politically stable, Westward-leaning Ukraine would not be in China’s interests … a Ukraine firmly in Russia’s orbit might be preferable,” Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, told The Daily Signal.

Over the first nine months of 2017, trade between Ukraine and China increased by 14.5 percent—reaching about $5.6 billion.

Ukrainian agriculture exports have contributed to the boost in trade. Ukraine has taken over from the U.S. as China’s top supplier of corn. Five years ago, the U.S. supplied about 97 percent of corn imported by China. Today, roughly 95 percent of it comes from Ukraine.

China is now the top purchaser of military equipment from Ukraine, totaling $90 million in sales in 2016.

China has already had a hand in rebuilding Ukraine’s transportation infrastructure, underscoring the importance of Ukraine to the One Belt, One Road initiative. Kyiv has awarded multiple contracts worth tens of millions of euros for Chinese companies to upgrade Ukrainian highways.

Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines in 2014. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

Beyond roadwork, Beijing has plans for a $400 million passenger railway connecting Kyiv Boryspil International Airport and Kyiv. And a Chinese company has been dredging Ukraine’s Yuzhny port, the country’s busiest.

China is also investing in other sectors of Ukraine’s economy. Ivan Miroshnichenko, a Ukrainian member of parliament, told Ukrainian media that China could invest $8 to $12 billion in Ukraine over the next five years.

Last week, Chinese officials expressed interest in purchasing aircraft from Ukraine’s Antonov aircraft manufacturing company, as well as licensing Chinese companies to produce spare parts for any aircraft China buys. (Antonov recently cut itself off from all Russian part suppliers.)

And in November, China’s Bohai Commodity Exchange acquired the Ukrainian Bank for Reconstruction and Development, or UBRD. At a press conference in Kyiv on Thursday, Bohai CEO Yang Dong Sheng said the UBRD should become “a platform for organizing cooperation in the investment sphere between Ukraine and China.”

Lingering corruption and Russia’s war in the east have dampened Western investment in Ukraine. China, on the other hand, is unfazed so far.

“I don’t get the sense the Chinese are about to start pressuring anyone to back off their wars,” Cheng, The Heritage Foundation fellow, said. “This might change once [One Belt, One Road] takes off, but we’re not there yet.”

No Strings Attached

Kai’s visit to Kyiv came as both the EU and the U.S. unleashed criticism on Ukraine’s government for its faltering anti-corruption reforms.

On Dec. 1, the European Union announced it was withholding the final 600 million-euro tranche of a larger 1.8 billion-euro financial assistance package to Ukraine. Kyiv’s failure to fulfill reform requirements spurred the move, the EU said.

The U.S. also recently knocked Ukraine’s reform efforts. On Dec. 4, the State Department issued a blunt statement urging Ukrainian lawmakers to pick up the pace of anti-corruption efforts.

“It serves no purpose for Ukraine to fight for its body in Donbas if it loses its soul to corruption,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in the statement, which was posted to the State Department’s website, referring to Russia’s ongoing proxy war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

With both the EU and the U.S. apparently losing patience with Kyiv, China could have an opening to quietly gain leverage through economic inducements that are not tied to any to-do list of reforms. An outcome Moscow would surely welcome.

“While Russia might prefer that nobody invest in Ukraine in order to increase economic pressure on Kyiv, it lacks the tools to achieve this goal,” said Holcomb, the Institute for the Study of War analyst. “In this context, China’s ruthlessly pragmatic investment is preferable to similar Western initiatives which come tied with democratic values, which Moscow perceives as a strategic threat.”

Same Page

Russia and China are in the midst of a diplomatic rapprochement, founded, in principle, on a common aversion to the U.S.-led, post-war world order.

“The Chinese, and especially Xi Jinping, see the collapse of the USSR as a catastrophe,” Cheng said. “It left the U.S. in charge, but it also implied that states could disintegrate. The parallel for the [People’s Republic of China] is obvious … So, a Ukraine that was reabsorbed into Russia might not be so bad.”

Putin and Xi outlined their common worldview in a July joint statement.

“Both sides believe that the current international system is moving towards multi-polarization,” the joint Russian-Chinese statement read.

Battle scars in eastern Ukraine evidence a war that has not yet ended. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

The two countries, therefore, are inclined to see eye to eye in areas of overlapping interests, such as their respective goals in Ukraine, for the sake of maintaining good relations in pursuit of a common cause.

“China and Russia have different objectives in Ukraine, but neither side will allow those differences to derail the development of Sino-Russian relations,” Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Daily Signal. “I do not expect that pattern to change, even with China’s ongoing efforts to boost relations with Ukraine.”

China may want to set a historical precedent in Ukraine by nudging the country back into Russia’s orbit, as Cheng suggested. Although, Beijing may not ultimately see Ukraine’s fate as an either-or choice between Russia and the West, as Moscow does.

“I think Beijing looks at this from a different prism,” Tsang, the Chatham House fellow, said. “It does not want Ukraine back in Russia’s orbit, but it does not want to see Ukraine in Western Europe’s orbit either. It prefers Ukraine put a higher priority in developing its relationship with China.”

Power Broker

Kai’s visit to Kyiv this week underscored a broader Chinese effort to increase its sway over Central and Eastern Europe. A gambit, some say, that should raise U.S. officials’ eyebrows, especially in light of Russia’s continuing hybrid aggression in that same region.

“Yes, America should be concerned about increasing Chinese economic influence in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe,” Holcomb said. “If Chinese investment and Russian aggression in Eastern Europe are not matched by corresponding U.S. economic and military measures in coming years, the U.S. and its partners risk ceding influence in the region to hostile revanchist powers.”

China has positioned itself as a regional power broker in Central and Eastern Europe. Across the region, China has been laying the groundwork for its One Belt, One Road Initiative through a laundry list of various agreements and initiatives.

More than 10,200 Ukrainians have died so far in the war. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

In 2012, Beijing spearheaded the “16+1” format (China is the +1). Comprising 11 EU member states and five Balkan countries, the Chinese brainchild was launched with the goal of “intensifying and expanding cooperation” among countries in the transportation corridor of China’s New Silk Road project.

The first 16+1 summit was held in Warsaw, Poland, in 2012. In 2016, China and a handful of Central and Eastern European countries signed the Riga Declaration, reaffirming their support for the Chinese plan.

Participating states include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Macedonia.

One outcome of the 16+1 format has been the Three Seas Initiative, a North-South trade corridor among the EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe, which was first proposed by Premier Li Keqiang during the China-CEEC Summit in 2015.

Beijing claims the trade corridor will “contribute to greater synergy” between the transportation infrastructures of Central and Eastern European countries and its One Belt, One Road initiative.

Spoiler Alert

China’s 16+1 format highlights another collision of Russian and Chinese interests.

Since 2014, Russia has waged a campaign of hybrid aggression across Central and Eastern Europe—spanning the gamut from artillery barrages in Ukraine to cyberattacks in Estonia—to diminish European Union and NATO solidarity, as well as U.S. influence throughout what Moscow considers to be its post-Soviet sphere of influence, or “near-abroad.”

“China is investing billions of dollars in Central and Eastern Europe, where it has established the ‘16+1’ cooperation framework,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, an associate fellow at Chatham House.

Ukraine’s political volatility has not deterred Chinese investors. (Photo: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)

“Several of these countries, alarmed by Russia’s actions, fear a wider, potentially devastating, conflict,” Gould-Davies told The Daily Signal, adding that China could be averse to Russia’s subversive actions in the region.

“China, though more assertive under Xi, remains cautious,” Gould-Davies said. “It will worry about the ways Russia’s penchant for unpredictability could harm its wider interests.”

With so many countries’ interests converging in Central and Eastern Europe—including America’s—it could spark something analogous to a geopolitical bidding war for influence.

“The United States has the ability to play the normally Russian role of spoiler in the New Silk Road,” said Cheng, the Heritage fellow.

“These countries do not want to be under Chinese sway, nor under Russian sway as far as I can tell,” Cheng added. “American investments—along with Indian, Japanese, European investments—gives these states the better ability to pick and choose where China and Russia play.”

The post As China Invests in Ukraine, Russia Stands to Gain appeared first on The Daily Signal.