- Early 2017 efforts to rescind the Obama administration’s sanctions over election interference.
- Trump’s profound reluctance to criticize Putin, responding to Bill O’Reilly’s criticisms of Putin with, “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
- Trump’s Oval Office meeting with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, in which he told them that he had fired FBI Director James B. Comey for being “a real nut job” and that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
- Trump’s decision to congratulate Putin on his reelection despite written guidance not to do so.
- Trump’s casual invitation to Putin to come visit him in Washington.
Oh, and I might have read somewhere about Russia trying to influence the 2016 election in Trump’s favor and Trump’s deep-seated reluctance to acknowledge that.
So all of the above suggests that Trump has not been so tough toward Russia and its president. But any objective observer would also need to acknowledge that the Trump administration has turned out to be tougher on Russia than might have been expected in December 2016. For all of the talk about Trump returning compounds to the Russians, he did not do so. At the same time, the Trump administration has taken hawkish steps toward Moscow. This includes:
- The approval of lethal arms sales to Ukraine.
- The 2017 order for Russia to shutter its San Francisco consulate.
- The National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy prioritizing the threat from Russia.
- The expansion of economic sanctions against Russian allies of Putin.
- The bolstering of the European Deterrence Initiative.
- The 2018 expulsion of 60 more Russian diplomats.
Even the steel tariffs will hurt Russia far more than the exempted allies.
Trump has not been the toughest on Russia. But he has been tougher than many feared 14 months ago. For a guy whose rhetoric promises a very good relationship with Russia and with Putin, his actions say otherwise. What gives?
Much of this has to do with the fact that Trump’s foreign policy team has been way more hawkish toward Russia than him. So even if Trump has expressed a desire for better relations, his national security team has felt otherwise. Indeed, H.R. McMaster’s parting shot as national security adviser was directed at Russia. According to CNN:
In his last public remarks as national security adviser, Lt. Gen. HR McMaster offered harsh words for Russia Tuesday during a speech at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C.
“We have failed to impose sufficient costs” on Russia, McMaster said at the event, which also included a Q&A with the Presidents of Estonia and Latvia, as well as the Foreign Minister of Lithuania.
He added that the failure to impose adequate costs on Russia’s activities meant that “the Kremlin’s confidence is growing.”
“Russia has used old and new forms of aggression to undermine our open societies,” McMaster said.
On one hand, McMaster’s acknowledgment that the United States hasn’t been tough enough toward Russia might provide ammunition to Trump’s critics. On the other hand, it’s Trump’s national security adviser who is saying these things. True, McMaster is leaving, but John Bolton, while many things, is not known for being dovish on Russia, either. Same with Mike Pompeo replacing Rex Tillerson. Russia policy remains an area where Trump has deferred to his advisers.
This situation must drive Putin crazy. During the 2016 campaign, Putin’s preference for Trump was clear, if passive-aggressive at times. Now, however, Putin must cope with an administration that has proved to be far more hawkish than he expected. The Trump administration has taken actions, such as lethal aid to Ukraine, that were viewed as really risky back in 2016.
The bigger problem for Putin is that relations with the United States are only going to get worse. Most Republican leaders are not fans of Russia and will have no difficulty adopting an even more hawkish position when Trump exits the stage. The 2016 election also poisoned the well for Democrats. GOP members of Congress flex their hawk credentials by warning about Iran; Democratic members now do the same with Russia. Little wonder that, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 69 percent of Americans think that Russia tries to influence U.S. domestic affairs and 74 percent believe that Russia is actively working to undermine U.S. international influence and power.
Putin hoped that Trump would beat Hillary Clinton. He got his wish. For Russia, the Trump administration’s dysfunctional brand of governance has been a gift. With regard to U.S. foreign policy toward Russia, however, the system has worked reasonably well. The future looks even more bleak for bilateral relations. I wonder whether Putin sits in the Kremlin, brooding over buyer’s remorse.