- - Monday, January 28, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This year is shaping up as an inflection point for Europe.

Key national elections and European Union parliamentary elections could recast the continent’s political discourse for years to come. Britain is set to leave the European Union at the end of March, and NATO will mark its 70th anniversary as it, fittingly, continues to return to its roots: a focus on collective defense.

All of this affords the U.S. an important opportunity to affect the trajectory of Europe by acting swiftly to secure a free trade deal with the United Kingdom, stop Germany’s Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline to Russia and consider a permanent military presence in Poland and the Baltic states.

Furthermore, Washington would be wise to remain actively engaged in the Balkans, the Black Sea and Ukraine — three key regions where Russian actions increasingly threaten European security.

There is much unfinished business in the Western Balkans. Ethnic, religious and cultural differences, fueled by historical grievances, still have the potential to set off renewed hostilities and violence. Furthermore, the challenges posed by Russia’s destabilizing influence, rising Chinese interest and investment in the region, pockets of Islamist extremism, high unemployment, and lack of economic opportunity threaten to ensnare the Balkans in permanent geopolitical quicksand.

The Trump administration cannot afford to take its eye off the ball in the Balkans. Rather, it should work to expedite Macedonia’s accession to NATO, extend visa waiver privileges to Croatia and prevent a land swap agreement between Kosovo and Serbia.

In Ukraine, Russia continues to fight and fuel a war in the eastern Donbas region, a conflict that has cost over 11,000 lives since 2014. The aggression does not end there. In November, Russian FSB border patrol boats near the Kerch Strait rammed and fired on Ukrainian coast guard vessels. Two months later, Moscow still holds 24 Ukrainian sailors and three vessels captive.

Ukraine will hold presidential elections in March and parliamentary elections in October. Unsurprisingly, elections in Ukraine have proved an irresistible target for Russian influence operations. Last week, Ukrainian Cyberpolice Chief Serhiy Demedyuk warned that Russian hackers have redoubled their efforts to disrupt this year’s elections.

The U.S. should continue to demand that Russia release the Ukrainian service members and coast guard vessels being held hostage while implementing policies designed to improve Kiev’s maritime capabilities.

Washington should also send a high-level representative to meet with Ukraine’s new president in the spring to discuss judicial reforms and economic liberalization. A more prosperous Ukraine will be, by extension, one that provides fewer opportunities for corruption.

Russia’s military buildup in occupied Crimea, along with its recent aggression near the Kerch Strait, highlight the volatility of the Black Sea region.

Five U.S. allies, including three NATO allies, have coastlines along the Black Sea. Control of Crimea has allowed Russia to use the Black Sea as a platform to launch and support naval operations around the eastern Mediterranean.

American engagement has declined in the region. In 2019, the U.S. should work with allies to re-establish a regular naval presence in the Black Sea, in accordance with the Montreux Convention.

President Trump should also consider an official visit to Romania, a robust U.S. ally that already meets the NATO target of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. The trip would highlight U.S. interest in the region and support greater economic cooperation with allies, notably through the Three Seas Initiative.

In recent years, U.S. engagement in Europe overall has seen a marked improvement. In 2019, as the Trump administration looks to solidify the implementation of its strategy for Europe, it should keep a focus on the Balkans, the Black Sea and Ukraine — three strategic areas where there is no substitute for active American leadership.

Daniel Kochis is a policy analyst specializing in European affairs for The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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