More alarming is President Trump's response: Nothing. This, too, follows a pattern of fealty before Putin, as the president has consistently praised Putin, dismissed Russia's meddling in the 2016 election, never criticized Russian annexation of Crimea, and uttered not a word about violations of human rights and growing autocracy in Russia. Trump's embrace of Putin, despite the clear costs to U.S. national security, has tightened. But this latest moment of indifference — silence about the killing of American soldiers — marks a new low.
We now know what to expect of Putin, whose litany of belligerent acts is long and increasingly audacious. In 2008, he invaded the republic of Georgia and then recognized its territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, an obvious and violent attack on international law. In 2014, he violated Ukrainian sovereignty by annexing Crimea, defying one of the most sacred rules of the international order since the end of World War II. After the annexation, Putin armed (and at times supported with his own soldiers) separatist movements in eastern Ukraine, resulting in more than 13,000 deaths and roughly 2 million displaced citizens; these rebels also used a Russian rocket to shoot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. In 2015, Putin deployed the Russian air force to Syria to prop up a ruthless dictator; his pilots committed war crimes when bombing Syrian civilians indiscriminately, according to the United Nations.
In 2016, Putin violated American sovereignty, trying in several ways to influence the outcome of our presidential election. The same year, Russian intelligence agents allegedly sought to orchestrate a coup in Montenegro just as the country was preparing to join NATO. In 2018, Putin attempted to assassinate an apostate intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, in Britain, using a toxin easily traced back to Russia. Then in 2019, his agents allegedly killed Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Chechen Georgian citizen, in Berlin, where he had sought asylum after previous attempts on his life. And now in 2020, American intelligence officials revealed that Putin has offered Taliban fighters bounties to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
Tragically, Trump's feeble response to these atrocities has followed an equally consistent pattern. His administration has tried to implement appropriate policy responses to contain and punish the Putin regime — measures Trump himself has sought to weaken. The administration rightly provided lethal military assistance to Ukraine. But Trump undermined the benefits of that policy by asking his friend and lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to try to condition receipt of this military aid on nonexistent dirt that Ukraine's government might dig up on former vice president Joe Biden. The administration rightly provided new resources and soldiers for NATO. But Trump has weakened NATO unity and readiness by berating allied leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular, and constantly treating the alliance as a protection racket. Trump reportedly participated in no interagency process before deciding alone to cut the number of U.S. soldiers in Germany. And he ordered substantial reductions in American forces in Syria, another present for Putin, without even telling his defense secretary, Jim Mattis. (Putin won the added benefit of Mattis's resignation in 2018 over the matter.)
In return for all of these gifts to Putin, Trump has received nothing. The president's exuberant fidelity to the Russian autocrat has produced no positive outcomes for U.S. national interests — no new arms-control treaty, no help in dealing with worsening relations with Iran, no assistance in fighting the Taliban, no withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, no freeing from a Moscow jail of wrongly imprisoned American Paul Whelan and no amazing trade deals.
Meanwhile, Trump has consistently tried to befriend Putin, even when it was considered politically unwise to do so and when nearly his entire administration opposed this approach. Most shockingly, Trump stood next to Putin during a news conference after their summit in Helsinki in the summer of 2018 and told the world that he agreed with the Russian president, and disagreed with his own intelligence community and the Muller investigation, in believing that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Even on small issues of little relevance to American national interests, Trump has sided with Putin's propaganda, including defending the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and suggesting that Montenegro might trigger World War III.
Equally disturbing, Trump's alibi for his lack of a response to the apparent Russian-ordered contract killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan is incompetence. The Washington Post Fact Checker staff has documented more than 19,000 falsehoods uttered by Trump as of June. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that Trump was not orally briefed about this intelligence. That in itself is a damning indictment of the president and his national security team. National security adviser Robert O'Brien receives the Presidential Daily Brief, as do other senior national security officials. Why did none of them tell Trump about this intelligence since the White House learned of it last year, especially before he called Putin a half-dozen times, invited him back to the Group of Seven or announced American troop reductions in Germany? During my five years in the Obama administration, the president reviewed relevant intelligence before calling any head of state or undertaking any major foreign policy decision. That process does not appear to be functioning in the Trump administration.
There is still much to learn about this latest instance of Russian belligerence. National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said that "the veracity of the allegations continue to be evaluated," and the White House press secretary claimed that the intelligence community was not unified about this finding. But officials have also told reporters that the matter appeared in the Presidential Daily Brief months ago, on Feb. 27. In my three years of working at the National Security Council in the Obama administration, only the most serious intelligence findings appeared in that most precious of intelligence products. Hopefully, Congress will use its oversight powers to get to the bottom of this.
But even if Trump just learned about the bounties, he has still not said what he will do about them. Instead, he has denounced the reporting on this intelligence as "Just another HOAX," again defending Putin instead of siding with U.S. intelligence officials and our soldiers. It's no wonder Putin thought he could order the killing of American soldiers and face no serious consequences.
Trump isn't going to change the way he acts toward Russia; he's too invested in his personalized approach to diplomacy and his shambolic decision-making process. But imagine what four more years of this might mean for our troops abroad, our allies or our national security generally. It's not hard to picture Trump traveling to Moscow to watch the annual May 9 military parade and celebrating the end of the Great Patriotic War with his friend Putin; or lifting sanctions on Russia and abandoning Ukraine; or trying to pull the United States out of NATO. Trump's weak response to the bounty revelations is a warning of worse things to come.