President-elect Trump’s plan to once again reset U.S.-Russia relations is already encountering stiff resistance from a Washington foreign policy community that insists on confronting Russian mischief in the United States and around the world. The incipient battle will be the first test of whether Donald Trump can fundamentally reorient U.S. foreign policy against the wishes of the establishment.
Throughout the campaign, Trump promised to find an accommodation with the government of Vladimir Putin and expressed doubt about the reality and significance of various widely reported Russian transgressions, including the hacking of major American political organizations and interference in the U.S. election process. Now that Trump has been elected, lawmakers and Russia watchers in both parties fear his team will implement a change in the bilateral relationship that not only absolves Moscow of responsibility for its bad behavior but sacrifices the interests of the United States and its European allies.
The battle in Washington to stop Trump’s Russian spring began last week when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) called a Trump plan to cooperate in Syria with Putin’s government “unacceptable” and publicly demanded the incoming administration confront Russia for its ongoing atrocities there. McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) have a detailed plan to push back against Trump on Russia policy.
“My view has not changed even though Trump won. [The Russians] are a bad actor in the world, they need to be reined in,” Graham said. “He’s the commander in chief but Congress does have a say and a role in all this.”
Before Trump takes the oath of office, McCain and Graham will lead a congressional delegation to Ukraine, Georgia and Estonia to reassure these European partners that Washington is still committed to confronting Russian aggression. Starting in January, the pair will hold a series of hearings highlighting Russia’s transgressions around the world, including war crimes in Syria, cyberattacks, propaganda campaigns and threats to Baltic states.
In addition, Graham has said he wants to use his chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee to steer new funds to European allies for battling Moscow.
Although Trump dismissed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that the Russian government was responsible for hacking and leaking to influence U.S. politics this year, most members of Congress remain determined to press for some sort of response or punishment. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in The Post last week that Russia must be held to account for interfering in American politics. He also promises to introduce legislation to confront Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine and support a European Democracy Initiative to increase funding for countries resisting Russian political tampering. There’s also new legislation in the House to increase sanctions on Russia.
“Congress is trying to put as much of a frame around this policy as they can before it is created,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Exactly what form Trump’s Russia policy will take is unknowable, she said, because key national security appointments have not been made. But the Senate confirmation process will be another lever for lawmakers in the new Congress to vet incoming administration officials on the issue after inauguration.
Trump could find some support in Congress for his Russia reset among noninterventionists such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and pro-Russia lawmakers such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). But most Russia experts believe that Trump’s outreach to Putin will eventually become politically unpalatable for Trump because he will soon realize he is getting a bad bargain. That’s because the strategy of political interference is ingrained in Russian foreign policy, part of a long-term strategy to undermine the stability and confidence of liberal Western democracies.
“The new administration will likely get burned by Russia at some point, even if there is a cozying up,” said Alina Polyakova, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. A new report by the council details how Russia has been using a combination of overt and covert means to foster the rise of pro-Russian political parties in several Western European countries, including Britain, France and Germany.
“Moscow views the West’s virtues — pluralism and openness — as vulnerabilities to be exploited,” former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski writes in the foreward to the report. “The Kremlin’s blatant attempts to influence and disrupt the U.S. presidential election should serve as an inspiration for a democratic push back.”
Even President Obama, who has received some well-deserved criticism for his overly optimistic view on the potential to cooperate with Russia, is publicly calling on Trump to think twice before moving U.S. policy in a pro-Russian direction.
As president, Trump will have the prerogative to ignore the evidence and dismiss calls from allies to stand up to Putin. But more than a few in Washington are betting on a combination of pressure and persuasion on the incoming administration to stop the next Russian reset before it even begins.