This week Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have a nuclear weapons arsenal that cannot be intercepted by our missile defenses. That Cold War rhetoric might be in response to a new hard-line policy by the Trump White House. Scott Thuman recently went to Europe and Ukraine and found a new 'get tough' US policy, may be working.
On the snow-covered ranges of Poland, American tanks are making their presence known in Europe - honing their skills and once again, pointing east towards Moscow. In the skies over the Black Sea, a Russian jet comes within feet of a US aircraft - one of a growing number of hostile encounters raising tensions, even if no shots are fired. Russia has been testing NATO's defenses for years. The United States is pushing back with increasing determination. To see where these heightened tensions are leading, we traveled to Eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed and American-backed forces are on opposite sides.
Kurt Volker: It's a hot war. It is ongoing every day, live fire, mortars, artilleries, snipers.
Kurt Volker, special envoy for President Trump, dispelling the myth this is a frozen conflict.
Kurt Volker: On average, a Ukrainian soldier is killed about every three days. It is a significant level of violence. It's created over 10,000 deaths on the Ukrainian side over a million and a half displaced persons and 2017, the year just concluded, was the most violent year since the conflict began.
But this four-year-old war didn't start without warning. In fact, experts say the US and the west failed to respond strongly enough for years.
John Herbst: We were very slow to recognize that Putin has been pursuing for about a decade now, an explicitly revisionist policy. He wants to change the security orders that emerged in Europe at the end of the Cold War.
John Herbst, former diplomat and Ex-US ambassador to Ukraine, says that was most evident when Russia sent troops into neighboring Georgia and faced few repercussions, emboldening Russia's move into Ukraine, and high-tech tactics used against Estonia.
John Herbst: So he conducted a cyber attack on Tallinn in 2007, he conducted a war against Georgia and changed their borders in 2008, and we should recognize that the very weak Western response, there was really no response to Tallinn, there was a very weak response to Georgia, was going to encourage him do something nasty in Ukraine.
Many predicted Russia and Vladimir Putin would be getting a pass under a new President.
President Trump: You know, wouldn’t it be a great thing if we could actually get along with Russia. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?
But Volker, who deals directly with the Russians on behalf of President Trump, claims the opposite has occurred.
Kurt Volker: You've got to have a very frank, direct, and deliberate conversation, which is what I've tried to do. So, I've not minced any words speaking with the Russians either.
Scott: That seems to be reflective of the President's style, anyway. Being more frank.
Kurt Volker: Yeah. I think so. I think so. I think in this case, it's actually what was needed.
President Trump: The United States under my administration is completely rebuilding its military and is spending hundreds of billions of dollars to the newest and finest military equipment anywhere in the world being built right now. I want peace through strength.
Those carefully chosen words designed to project this President's vision of American power, by echoing a man Trump enjoys comparing himself to.
President Reagan: We cannot shirk our responsibility as leader of the free world because we’re the only one that can do it, and therefore the burden of maintaining the peace falls on us, and to maintain that peace requires strength, America has never gotten in a war because we’re too strong.
Ronald Reagan used Cold War West Berlin as a powerful backdrop for his diplomacy.
President Reagan: Mr. Gorbachev open this gate.
Nowadays, the united Germany leads the way in Europe. Experts here have also been surprised by Trump's actions.
Susan Stewart: A lot of expectation that, uh, there would be, again, some sort of reset with Russia that Trump and Putin would come to some kind of deal.
Dr. Susan Stewart is a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs In Berlin.
Susan Stewart: There was a lot of concern about that, in Ukraine in particular. And actually what has happened because of all of the investigations and all of the suspicions of involvement by Trump and his team with Russia. Has actually been able to have a more or less coherent line, which is quite similar to the, to the line under Obama actually.
A 'similar' line perhaps, to that of President Obama, but not the same policies. Now some in the foreign policy community believe, whether by design or by accident, President Trump is eclipsing Obama's security strategy.
John Herbst: I think President Obama was kind of weak when it came to great power politics. He didn't understand it. Whatever President Trump's intention, his policy is much better than his predecessor's.
The Obama administration famously hit the reset button with Moscow but that quickly soured, the cold war feeling returned. President Obama steadily increased support for both NATO and Ukraine. Now, President Trump has gone even further, going from defensive aid to lethal aid.
Scott: So the more the US provides the Ukrainians it may be weakening Russia overall?
John Herbst: The more we provide to Ukraine, if the Russians choose, it means either Russian aggression in Ukraine becomes harder or Russian aggression in Ukraine requires more resources. In either case, they have fewer resources to commit aggression against NATO allies. And we also are telling not just Mister Putin, but the Russian general staff, that aggression comes with a cost, so they'll be less likely to committing ventures elsewhere.
But President Trump faces the charge of being inconsistent, strong with aid, but reluctant to sanction Moscow as Congress demands.
Chuck Schumer: Throughout his term in office, President Trump has failed time and time again to stand up to Vladimir Putin despite the assault he carried out on our democracy in the 2016 elections.
Democrat Chuck Schumer, one of many members of Congress who recently voted for more sanctions which the President has so far not imposed.
Chuck Schumer: These are mandatory sanctions. They passed 92-7 in the Senate and he’s ignoring them.
The administration says new sanctions aren't needed right now because they can be added later if Russia continues its aggressive moves.
Scott: What did President Trump tell you he wanted you to do?
Kurt Volker: I've had meetings with Secretary Mattis, with the President, with Director Pompeo at the CIA and that is a very clear message from everybody and the President is, of course, the most succinct, he says, I just want peace. I want peace. And so that's the mandate; is to go make peace, as he put it.
Stepped-up tensions aren't likely to end anytime soon. Russians go to the polls in less than three weeks to elect a new president. Vladimir Putin faces seven challengers but is widely expected to win a fourth term.