President-elect Trump has set alarm bells ringing in many quarters. His rash statements on deportation, attacks on the First Amendment and alarming remarks about nuclear weapons should concern all Americans. Most frightful is his sympathetic, sometimes reverential tone about Russia’s autocratic president, the international aggressor Vladimir Putin.
Trump defenders would say that all presidents attempt to get along with Russia, while critics point out these resets have worked only to Russia’s benefit. Former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, who might still get the nod as deputy secretary of state (a move sure to mollify hawks and ease concerns about secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson), advised that if Russian conduct changes, the relationship can change. Russia’s interference with our election and invasion of Crimea did not prompt an appropriately severe reaction from President Obama. “If these activities are going to stop, then I think we can see a different relationship,” Bolton said Monday morning on Fox News. “Vladimir Putin defines Russian foreign policy entirely on the basis of Russian national interest. And he has gotten away with a lot in the last eight years.”
It makes no sense for Trump to double down on Obama’s failed Russia policy. Should Trump and Tillerson suggest that we will accommodate Russian interests that conflict with American and American allies’ interests, Congress must intervene loudly and forcefully. Trump is tasked with being the United States’ commander in chief, not trying to get Putin to like him personally at the United States’ expense.
In order to push Trump in the right direction, lawmakers would be wise to echo’s Bolton’s formulation as a bottom line for U.S. foreign policy and for confirmation of national security nominees: Acknowledge Russia’s unacceptable behavior and provide Putin with a clear choice. He can have better relations with the United States if he changes his behavior (Trump seems to offer better relations by denying his behavior), or he will face robust, forceful action from the West if he does not.
Initial hearings on Russian hacking this week should be accompanied by wall-to-wall, bipartisan agreement that Putin has been trying to interfere with Western elections and, therefore, consequences for this and other violations of international norms are required. A package of sanctions against Russia coupled with a resolution condemning Russia for international aggression and domestic repression — akin to near-unanimous agreement on Iran sanctions and objection to abstaining at the United Nations on a virulent anti-Israel resolution — would reaffirm to the international community the United States’ determination to stand by friends and confront adversaries. In the case of Russia, such action would also lay down a marker for the new administration.
There is a rare moment of bipartisan agreement on Russia and Israel. While Democrats and Republicans may disagree on the merits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, a.k.a. the Iran deal), they share a common concern about Iran’s non-nuclear conduct, its human rights record and its compliance with the strict letter of the deal. Trump, if he plays this right, might lead this bipartisan consensus. If, however, he decides for personal reasons to move to Obama’s left on Russia, he will have wasted a golden opportunity and set his administration on a collision course with Congress — and with voters, who still agree Russia is no friend of the United States’. (The Post recently reported: “Russia’s popularity among Americans has again dropped to Cold War-era depths, according to a poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. … The poll found Americans giving Russia an average rating of 32 when asked to rate their feelings toward Russia from 0 to 100. That score is down from an average of 40 in the organization’s June survey and marks the lowest score on this measure since 1986, when Russia’s rating stood at 31.”)
Trump can stand with either an unrepentant Russia, or with our allies, the vast majority of Americans and their lawmakers. Bolton’s formulation provides Trump with a road map, one he would be wise to follow.