Foreign policy challenges pile up for Trump

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  • Donald Trump
    Donald Trump
    45th President of the United States
  • Vladimir Putin
    Vladimir Putin
    2nd and 4th President of Russia
  • Barack Obama
    Barack Obama
    44th president of the United States

Washington (AFP) - Donald Trump's brief honeymoon from global affairs is over. After a week of relative calm and domestic preoccupations, actors from Russia to Iran are testing the new US president's mettle.

On the face of it, a recent Iranian ballistic missile test and a Russian-backed incursion deeper into Ukraine appear to have little in common and less to do with the man in the Oval Office.

But make no mistake, both were moves designed to test the Republican leader.

Trump's election has ended diplomatic business as usual. No one is quite sure what the neophyte president knows about the world or what he will decide on any given issue.

Tehran and Moscow apparently have decided to find out.

Since Trump spoke to President Vladimir Putin for an hour on Saturday, there has been a significant increase in violence around the Ukrainian industrial hub of Avdiivka.

It is unlikely that Trump gave Putin the green light for operations, but since the call, 19 people have died as separatists shelled the town of 20,000 with repeated rounds of Grad multiple rocket systems and artillery fire.

During Barack Obama's presidency, such incursions brought swift condemnation, calls for Russia and its allies to return to ceasefire agreements, support for Ukraine and a drip-drip of US and European sanctions against Moscow.

During the last four days of increasing violence, European capitals shouted concern, but Trump's White House -- which is still finding its feet -- made no public comment.

Instead, the State Department released a comment on day three, saying it was "deeply concerned with the recent spike in violence" and noting Ukrainian casualties, but without naming the culprit.

On day four, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president has been "kept aware" of the situation.

- Transatlantic unity? -

There is growing concern among European diplomats that Trump, at best, is showing neglect. At worst, Ukraine may be collateral damage in his desire to improve relations with Russia.

"Transatlantic unity has been decisive in pushing back against Russian aggression against Ukraine in the last years," said Ulrich Speck, a foreign policy analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute.

Sanctions -- agreed between Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel -- helped stop Russian advances, Speck said.

Obama and Merkel made any sanctions relief contingent on Putin respecting the Minsk ceasefire agreement.

"If this unity falls apart, Russia could feel encouraged to restart the war in Eastern Ukraine, in order to destabilize the Ukrainian government," said Speck.

There are early signs that the unity is already fraying.

The Kremlin's readout of the Trump-Putin call spoke of "restoring mutually beneficial trade and economic ties" -- an oblique reference to sanctions.

Colin Kahl, who was intimately involved in managing the Ukraine crisis in Obama's White House, expressed concern that Trump could back Russia's view of events and "blame the victim," causing a split with Europe.

The real danger, he said on Twitter, is "Ukraine feeling abandoned" and so Ukrainian nationalists take matters into their own hands -- deepening the spiral of violence.

- Missile offense -

Transatlantic unity is also being tested in the Middle East.

On Wednesday, after days of evasion, Iran's Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan presented another problem for Trump when he admitted that the Islamic Republic recently tested a ballistic missile.

The medium-range missile was fired Sunday and saw a "failure of the re-entry vehicle," according to one US official.

But the test was not just military in scope -- it was also a political statement.

Throughout the election campaign, Trump has sounded a tough tone on Iran, vowing to stop Tehran's missile program and tear up a deal curbing its nuclear program.

With the ball in Trump's court, the administration reacted by "officially putting Iran on notice" that business as usual was over, according to Trump's national security advisor, Michael Flynn.

Quite what that means remains unclear and even imposing more sanctions would be a heavy lift.

Under UN resolutions, Iran is prohibited from testing ballistic missiles that could carry a nuclear weapon, but previous tests have brought a cautious response from European countries who fear undermining the nuclear deal.

A call for sanctions would also test Trump's burgeoning relationship with Putin, who would likely veto any resolutions.

US officials say they are determined to show Iran that there is a new sheriff in town. But it's still unclear whether the new sheriff can lay down the law.

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