Opinion writer

At a Foreign Policy Initiative forum on Nov. 30, now-national security adviser H.R. McMaster spoke about national security challenges and military readiness. One portion of his remarks caught my eye:

And so we are concerned, obviously, with the two revisionist powers on the Eurasian land mass: Russia and China. Who are engaged in what you might say is a limited war for an objective of collapsing the post-World War II political, economic, and security order, and to replace that with one that is more sympathetic to their interests. They are pursuing a very sophisticated strategy that combines the use of unconventional forces under the cover of conventional forces but also involves a very sophisticated propaganda disinformation campaign economic actions and political subversion and so forth. So this is one threat set to look at and both of those militaries are modernizing their militaries. And Russia in particular has been aggressive in the use of its military in the invasion of Ukraine the invasion of Syria and so forth. So we are watching that very carefully. We are looking at Russian capabilities and emerging capabilities to do a vulnerability analysis on us to see where our capability gaps are, but also to understand better what our strengths are relative to them so that we can preserve and accentuate those strengths.

This is not a man who believes we just need to try harder to “get along” with Russia. Indeed, from what we have seen so far, no one in the national security realm in this administration — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly — or, it turns out, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shares the view that Russia has clean hands, has a right to a “sphere of influence” or has been remotely helpful in the war against Islamist terrorists. Tillerson, whose relationship with President Vladimir Putin certainly alarmed Russia hawks, has so far set out entirely mainstream views on Russia, Ukraine and NATO. If he’s a closet Putin fan, he has done an awfully good job of disguising it.

Now that the upper tier of the foreign policy team is set — minus Michael Flynn — it is hard to see how a revisionist Russia policy could gain traction. “If you look at the top three people around him — McMaster, Mattis, and yes, Tillerson — they are all deeply wary of Putin’s Russia,” says lively Trump critic and State Department veteran Eliot Cohen.

Sure, White House political flunkies might prefer to have pro-Putin parties in power in Europe or dream of a grand bargain (Russia gets Ukraine, we get “help” fighting the Islamic State), but Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller do not have the wherewithal to craft and implement policy. They’d be foolish to go up against a united front of Tillerson, Mattis, McMaster, Pompeo, Haley and Director of National Intelligence nominee Dan Coats; they’d be without the data, the arguments or the intellectual heft to undo mainstream policy positions aimed at defending our Western allies and containing Putin.

Sure, Trump could fire anyone at any time. But having assembled a foreign policy team that is more respected (in both parties, I would argue) than he is, he would risk a full-scale rebellion and raft of resignations if he wanted to remove one or more of the Russia hawks for, among other things, presenting facts, relaying allies’ views and recommending reasonable policy responses.

Then there is Congress. The two parties are outdoing each other on who can be tougher on Russia, aside from the issue of investigating Trump’s ties to the Kremlin. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) announced support on Tuesday for the Russian Sanctions Review Act. His statement read, in part:

Vladimir Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine and the repeated cyberattacks that Russia has carried out against U.S. government entities and individuals constitute a real threat to the democratic ideals that have long been held by the United States and our allies. … Russia must earn sanctions relief through clear and definitive actions such as ceasing their occupation of Crimea, their aggression in Ukraine, and their malevolent activities directed at our government and our nation’s election system. Until that time arrives, we must remain vigilant in our commitment to upholding the rule of law through any means necessary, including targeted sanctions.

He noted that both the House and Senate bills — introduced by Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) — would require a 120-day review period before the president could alter sanctions currently applied on Russia. “Additionally,” Dent’s press release explains, “the bill would codify a number of existing executive orders that impose sanctions on Russian affiliates, including those involved in the recent hacking of the United States.”

Dent joins four Democrats and three other Republicans — Reps. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio) — in sponsorship of the bill. In other words, even if Trump wanted to move ahead with sanctions relief, he’d run into blowback from his Cabinet and from both parties in Congress, not to mention our NATO allies. Aside from Bannon and Miller, Trump has no pro-Russia comrades in the administration and only a few in Congress. Moreover, “the accumulating pile of noxious stories about Russian connections and influence makes it harder to pivot our policy,” Cohen says.

Well, Trump might not be able to peel back sanctions without causing a ruckus or strike a grand bargain that sells Ukraine and Eastern Europe down the tubes, but he could refuse to act, for example by declining to deploy serious counter cyber-measures, failing to act forcefully to halt further Russian aggression, remaining mute while Putin interferes in European elections and ignoring Putin’s kleptocracy and domestic repression. In other words, he could act pretty much as former president Barack Obama did for the majority of his eight years in office. We know from eight years of Obama how difficult it can be to force a reluctant commander in chief to stand up (militarily or otherwise) to foes.

Where does that leave us? Trump may be partially boxed in, prevented from acting on his desire for a chummy relationship with the former KGB thug. But by the same token, he might be reluctant to prevent and/or respond to Russian aggression. It is hard to run foreign policy from Congress, but in anticipation of Trump’s weakness toward Russia, Congress should think about locking in sanctions, issuing its own declaration of support of our European allies and passing funds to arm Ukraine.

Moreover, it can act on a little-known provision in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which created a Global Engagement Center housed in the State Department “responsible for integrating, synchronizing and coordinating counter-propaganda and disinformation efforts,” according to a copy of the bill. In other words, it’s tasked with uncovering Russian and other plots to use American media, cyberwarfare and other measures to interfere in our political process and to develop our own to strike back at Putin and other bad actors. Sponsors of the measure, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), said in a statement when it was signed into law:

The bipartisan bill, which was introduced by Senators Portman and Murphy in March [2016], will improve the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation from our enemies by establishing an interagency center housed at the State Department to coordinate and synchronize counter-propaganda efforts throughout the U.S. government. To support these efforts, the bill also creates a grant program for NGOs, think tanks, civil society and other experts outside government who are engaged in counter-propaganda related work. This will better leverage existing expertise and empower our allies overseas to defend themselves from foreign manipulation. It will also help foster a free and vibrant press and civil society overseas, which is critical to ensuring our allies have access to truthful information and inoculating people against foreign propaganda campaigns.

Congress should make certain that effort is funded and exercise oversight in tracking the State Department’s progress.

We should not overstate the degree to which the president is boxed in. “Trump is in charge, and yes, he really does get to call the shots,” warns Cohen. In this window of opportunity while Trump’s and Bannon’s worst inclinations concerning Russia may be stymied, Congress and Cabinet officials would do well to advance affirmative programs to counteract the impression that the United States is in Putin’s pocket.