The U.S. president drew a red line when 24 Ukrainians were seized last year. Now his sit-down with the Russian president is back on.
KIEV, Ukraine—Andriy Oprysko always dreamed of becoming a sailor. As a 17-year-old in the last days of the Soviet Union, he wanted to join the navy, but his mother forbade it as too dangerous. Years later, at 45, with his own children grown up, he decided it was time and joined the Ukrainian navy.
“He was so happy to be a part of it finally,” said his daughter, Olga Oprysko.
Now Andriy Oprysko sits in a Russian jail, a hostage in Moscow’s secret war in eastern Ukraine. He was one of 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by Russia last November as their ships attempted to pass through the Kerch Strait off the coast of Crimea, to reach the Ukrainian port of Mariupol.
Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump delivered one of his strongest personal rebukes of Russia’s actions in Ukraine when, to protest the detention of the sailors, he called off a planned meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. In a tweet, Trump said then that he looked forward to holding another summit once the situation was resolved.
But seven months later, Olga’s father and other sailors are still held in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison, while a Trump-Putin meeting is back on the agenda on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on Friday. And the families of Oprysko and the other prisoners will be watching closely to see if Trump and other world leaders will press Putin to release the sailors.
At a press briefing on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked Putin to release the sailors, “We have, everyone has children. Return these children to their parents,” he said.
Lines of communication between the sailors and their relatives have been extremely limited. Since his imprisonment, Olga has received just two handwritten letters from her father. In them, he tries to reassure his elderly mother and his two children that he is doing OK, and he tells them not to worry.
“He’s a strong person and mature,” Olga said. She wonders about the younger sailors. Some were just teenagers when they were captured.
Trump’s reversal may be more a question of symbolism than substance. Sanctions placed on Russia by the United States and its allies over the Kerch Strait incident are set to continue. But it is the latest example of Trump’s inconsistent approach to foreign policy, particularly when it comes to Russia.
“[Speaking] as someone who spent 31 years in the State Department, that teaches you to be very careful when you lay down conditions or red lines,” said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
The president has claimed that he has been far tougher on Russia than his predecessors, but while his administration and Congress have played the bad cop—placing further sanctions on Moscow, expelling Russian diplomats, and authorizing the transfer of lethal weapons to Ukraine—Trump himself has barely uttered a word against Russia. At his summit with Putin in Helsinki last summer, he took the Russian leader on his word that he had not sought to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections over the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies.
The significance of Friday’s meeting will not be lost on Putin, whose embrace of strategic photo opportunities has become the cornerstone of his public image in Russia.
“A meeting with Putin becomes a freebie and a big gift to Putin from which we extract very little,” said Andrew Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who formerly served as director for Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council.
Herbst said that Ukraine shouldn’t read too much into the sit-down. Bipartisan support for Ukraine is strong in Washington, and the recently elected Ukrainian president, Zelensky, is expected to visit the White House later this year—a more significant setting than a meeting on the sidelines of a summit.
On Wednesday, Putin’s foreign-policy advisor Yuri Ushakov told journalists that the two leaders would discuss a range of issues of interest to both countries, including Ukraine, Iran, Venezuela, Syria, and Afghanistan. Ushakov said the meeting could last for up to one hour.
When asked for comment on what the two leaders would discuss, a spokesperson for the National Security Council referred Foreign Policy to Trump’s comments on Wednesday. Speaking to reporters, the president said, “I will have a very good conversation with him,” adding, “What I say to him is none of your business.”
Russia continues to claim legal reasons for its detention of the sailors. A bilateral treaty signed by Russia and Ukraine gives both countries permission to use the narrow waterway, but Moscow claimed that the Ukrainian vessels had violated its international waters. Russia’s occupation of Crimea is not recognized by Ukraine or the international community.
The question of how to deal with Russia has proved to be a tightrope for successive governments in the United States and Europe. Russian and U.S. interests frequently meet, but less often converge, in many of the world’s hotspots, and few would argue against strategic dialogue between the two nations.
“We should be talking to the Russians at all levels. At the same time, we should be pushing back hard against their aggression,” Herbst said.
Trump’s U-turn marks the second time this week that a penalty imposed on Russia for revanchist behavior in Ukraine has been overturned. On Tuesday, the parliament of the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organization, voted to allow Russian representatives to return to the body, after their voting rights were suspended following the annexation of Crimea.
Russia had threatened to withdraw from the Council of Europe altogether. Those who supported Russia’s return feared that if they left the body, it would prevent Russian citizens from bringing cases before the European Court of Human Rights. Critics saw it as capitulation.
Objection to the move was strongest in countries close to Russia’s borders. On Wednesday, delegates from Georgia, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia walked out of a session of the Parliamentary Assembly in protest.
Nikolai Polozov, a Russian lawyer who is coordinating the legal defense team for the Ukrainian sailors, said that he hoped their release was a condition of Trump’s upcoming meeting with Putin, “I very much hope that President Trump is a man of his word,” he said in a written statement to Foreign Policy. “Any concessions to Putin will be perceived as weakness on the part of the United States will be perceived as weakness of the west in general.”
In May, the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled that the Ukrainian sailors be immediately released, but Russia has still not carried out the court’s order. On Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry sent a note to its counterparts in Kiev suggesting that it would hand over the sailors if Ukraine would continue to prosecute them under Russian law.
Olga Oprysko said that relatives of the seamen were outraged by the decision to allow Russia to return to the Council of Europe. As for Trump’s meeting with Putin, she said she is waiting to see what the two leaders will discuss.
“We hope for a strong position, we hope that Trump will try to defend human rights and the matter of international law and so on. Because what we see now, it’s like Chamberlain-style politics,” said Oprysko, in reference to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler in the late 1930s.
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy on June 27th, 2019.