President-elect Donald Trump castigated President Obama during the campaign for weakness in dealing with Iran and insufficient urgency in addressing the Islamic State. His constant refrain was: “We don’t win anymore!” He now seems to be on a tear against China, threatening a 35 percent tariff (to which House Republicans object). When it comes to Russia, however, he seems to be a pushover for Vladimir Putin. Trump could possibly be the weakest president yet when it comes to confronting the revanchist regime in Moscow.
Robert Kagan, who backed Hillary Clinton, recently testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He reminded the lawmakers:
[Russia] has invaded two neighboring states—Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014—and in both cases has hived off significant portions of those two nations’ sovereign territory. It has also projected military force into Syria, lending its military support to the Syrian regime’s efforts to crush all opposition, including by the aerial bombing and massacre of civilian populations. Russia has also been aggressive in other ways. It has wielded its control of European energy resources as a weapon. It has used cyberwarfare against neighboring states. It has engaged in extensive information warfare on a global scale. And it has interfered directly in Western electoral processes, both to try to influence their outcomes and more generally to discredit the democratic system. This past year, Russia for the first time employed this powerful weapon against the United States, heavily interfering in the American electoral process with as yet unknown consequences. …
Its interference in Western democratic political systems, its information warfare, and perhaps most importantly, its role in creating increased refugee flows from Syria into Europe have all contributed to the sapping of Europeans’ confidence in their political systems and their established political parties. Its military intervention in Syria, contrasted with American passivity, has exacerbated already existing doubts about American staying power in the region.
He spares no criticism of the Obama administration’s overall attempt to pursue “global retrenchment.” On Russia specifically, he argues:
Its early attempt to “reset” relations with Russia was a first blow to America’s reputation as a reliable ally, partly because it came just after the Russian invasion of Georgia and thus appeared to be almost a reward for Russian aggression; partly because the “reset” came at the expense of planned programs of military cooperation with Poland and the Czech Republic that were jettisoned to appease Moscow; and partly because this effort at appeasement came just as Russian policy toward the West, and Vladimir Putin’s repressive policies toward the Russian people, were hardening. Then in 2014, the West’s collective response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea, though better than the Bush administration’s response to the invasion of Georgia—Europe and the United States at least imposed sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine—still indicated reluctance on the part of the U.S. administration to challenge Russia in what the American President regarded as Russia’s own sphere of interest.
In Syria, the present administration practically invited Russian intervention, if only through American passivity, and certainly did nothing to discourage it, thus reinforcing the already prevalent impression of an America in retreat in that region (an impression initially created by the unnecessary and unwise withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq). Subsequent Russian actions which increased the refugee flow from Syria into Europe also brought no American response, despite the evident damage of those refugee flows to European democratic institutions. The overall impression given by the present administration has been that none of this is America’s problem.
One would expect that a president who had disdain for America “losing” and ran under the banner of “Make America Great Again” would want to reverse Obama’s Russia policy, just as he says he wants to do on Iran. Instead, he seems ready to surrender to Putin’s international ambitions. After all, Trump does Putin’s bidding when he questions the stability of NATO and argues that Ukraine is mostly a European problem. Kagan warns that denying Russian responsibility for interference in our election also plays into Russian hands. (“Russian interference in Western democratic political processes has become a major element of Moscow’s strategy to disrupt, divide, and demoralize the West. The tactics it has recently employed in the United States it has already used in elections and referendums across Europe, including most recently in Italy, and will likely use again in France and Germany.”)
Much attention has been focused on why Trump seems to be in Putin’s thrall. Is it financial self-interest, adulation of a dictator, misinformation from a duped national security adviser or all of the above? Whatever the reason, Trump and his aides should understand that when the United States gives Russia whatever it wants, it doubles down on Obama’s inept negotiating posture. When it gives way to Russia on Syria, it bolsters not only Putin but also Iran, signaling that the United States has no serious interest in restraining aggressive powers. These would personify weakness and “losing” on the international scene. It would be ironic if Trump makes the Obama-Clinton approach to Russia look robust by comparison. When are we going to start winning against Russia?