“They always bring up Russia, Russia, Russia,” Trump complained in the interview with Axios.
On Wednesday, as Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and military leaders announced plans to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany to better position the NATO alliance for “deterrence of Russia,” Trump offered a different explanation.
It was all about payback against NATO ally Germany for years of ripping off the United States on defense and trade, he told reporters at the White House. “Why would we keep all of our troops there?” He made no mention of Russia.
On Thursday, Democratic lawmakers at a Senate hearing questioned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the president’s dismissal of the bounty report, the troop withdrawal, and the cutting of a European defense initiative budget.
In response, Pompeo boasted of U.S. lethal weapons shipped to Ukraine, sanctions against “more than 360 Russian targets,” a 2018 U.S. strike against attacking Russian mercenaries in Syria that killed hundreds, and a doubling of proposed funds to counter Kremlin disinformation campaigns.
“We’re the toughest administration ever on Russia,” he said.
Despite the tough talk from those below him, Trump has been accused of being soft on Russia, and particularly on Putin, since he began his first presidential campaign. He’s an “absolute leader,” Trump said of the Russian in a 2015 tweet, “so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”
The compliment was among many that would follow during Trump’s candidacy and presidency — on Twitter, in interviews, and standing by Putin’s side in a news conference after their 2018 one-on-one meeting in Helsinki. It was there that Trump sided with Putin’s denials against U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Those who think there is strategic thought behind Trump’s praise of Putin are missing the point, said a former senior administration official. “They’re thinking about a conventional politician who cares about U.S. foreign policy” and has a historical knowledge and understanding of the U.S.-Russia relationship, said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment.
Trump “doesn’t want to be kicked around by the Russians,” but he does want to “cozy up to Putin,” the former official said. “If Russia didn’t exist, and Putin was the badass leader of — pick a country — [Trump] would still want to be seen with him.”
To the extent Trump “undermines U.S. policy,” it is not necessarily because of his lauding of Putin, but “because there is no coherent policy,” the former official said. “There is no devolution to fill out the details of the kind of deals he wants to make.” The result is what is widely seen among experts as tactical responses to Russian actions. Many of those responses, from sanctions to combating disinformation, have been initiated or promoted by Congress, which often finds bipartisan agreement on Kremlin perfidy.
Trump’s sometimes fawning esteem for the Russian leader has made even some of Trump’s conservative supporters uneasy. But there is widespread support among them for the president’s insistence that investigations of the Kremlin’s efforts to skew the U.S. electoral process — and the possible involvement of the Trump campaign — was politically motivated by the Obama administration to elect Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and ultimately by efforts to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency.
Democrats and the “mainstream media” have focused on Trump’s reluctance to criticize Putin, while ignoring “a broader strategy of being tough with Russia” that does not “fit the narrative,” Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News contributor and columnist for The Washington Post, said in a mid-July AEI podcast.
In addition to the sanctions and other measures, Thiessen pointed to Trump’s approval of a U.S. cyberattack that shut down a group of Kremlin-backed trolls on the day of the 2018 midterm elections. While the classified attack was reported by The Post last year, Trump acknowledged for the first time that it had happened and he had launched it, in an interview with Thiessen last month.
“I made us the number one oil-producing country in the world,” rebuilt the U.S. military to make it the “newest . . . we’ve ever had,” pressed NATO members to spend more on defense and pressured Germany to cancel a natural gas pipeline from Russia, none of which, Trump said, was “good for Russia.”
But even though “every week, we put more sanctions on Russia,” Trump said, he and Putin “actually have a very good relationship.” As an example, Trump cited what he said were their efforts “to work out a nuclear arms treaty that’s going to be a significant one.”
So far, however, there has been no progress toward rewriting or extending the most significant arms accord between them, the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty that expires in February. A recent exploratory meeting between the two sides in Vienna ended without result after the administration, which has turned much of its foreign policy aggression toward China in this election year, insisted that its far smaller nuclear arsenal be included. Both Beijing and Moscow refused.
“From the Russian standpoint, we’re not serious about arms control at this point,” said Thomas Graham, who managed a White House-Kremlin strategic dialogue as senior director for Russia on the National Security Council under Bush. “There is simply not time now to negotiate a new agreement, bilateral, let alone trilateral.”
“Other than the Russians capitulating, I have no idea what the [Trump] administration is trying to achieve concerning Russia,” Graham said.
Trump’s personal diplomacy is credited with facilitating oil production cuts last spring by Russia, Saudi Arabia and Mexico as prices plummeted and they — along with the United States — were facing a supply glut as the spread of the coronavirus reduced demand.
But judging by Trump’s own statements, both the European troop withdrawals and sanctions on companies working on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia have far more to do with punishing Germany, a frequent target of Trump’s public and private ire, than being part of a comprehensive Russia strategy.
Graham, the former NSC Russia director, thinks that Trump’s rejection of the bounty charge — in which Russia military intelligence reportedly paid Taliban-linked militants to kill U.S. troops — is a less than pertinent example of the president’s reluctance to confront the Russian leader.
“I worked for a president who didn’t like to deliver bad news to Putin,” he said. “But you can also make the argument that unless it’s been thoroughly raised at lower levels, it doesn’t make any sense to raise it at a higher level. All you’re going to do is get a denial from Putin.”
“Ultimately our goal is to shift Russian behavior in a way that is much more favorable to advance our national interest,” Graham said. “Has anything that the administration has done . . . changed Russian behavior in any way favorable to the United States? I’d be hard put to say that it has.”