Given Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, this question has stalked Donald Trump throughout his presidency: Why hasn’t he taken tougher action against Moscow, beyond the occasional sanction?
On Friday, members of Trump’s administration pitched the withdrawal from a nuclear arms control treaty with Russia as evidence the president is willing to push back on Putin.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said it put Russia on notice. “We have raised Russia’s noncompliance with Russian officials, including at the highest levels of government, more than 30 times,” he said. “Yet Russia continues to deny that its missile system is noncompliant and violates the treaty. Russia’s violation puts millions of Europeans and Americans at greater risk, it aims to put the United States at a military disadvantage, and it undercuts the chances of moving our bilateral relationship in a better direction."
He added: “It’s our duty to respond appropriately. When an agreement is so brazenly disregarded and our security is so openly threatened, we must respond.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was more explicit, saying the whole thing disproved the idea that Trump is “soft on Russia” and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"I mean, listen to those words today. Is he?” Conway said. “See the action that Secretary of State Pompeo took today. … Whether you want to see it or not, the American people see it: a president who is willing to stand up for America and not stand down to Russia and Putin.”
It’s true that this is a significant action that ostensibly punishes Russia — one the Obama administration resisted, even though it also concluded that Russia was violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, forged at the tail end of the Cold War.
But that was in large part because it feared a revamped nuclear arms race, not necessarily because it was afraid of holding Russia accountable. Even if Russia was violating the treaty, the reasoning went, it was better to leave it in place as a deterrent.
It’s also true that Putin isn’t sad about its termination. In fact, he’s been threatening to withdraw from the treaty for more than a decade. On Saturday, he announced Russia would suspend its participation in the treaty, following the United States' lead.
Putin has repeatedly objected to the fact that other countries haven’t joined in the treaty. In 2007, during the George W. Bush administration, he said this, according to an Associated Press report:
“We need to convince other (countries) to assume the same level of obligation as assumed by the Russian Federation and the United States,” Putin said. “If we are unable to obtain such a goal ... it will be difficult for us to keep within the framework of the treaty in a situation where other countries do develop such weapon systems, and among those are countries located in our near vicinity.”
Putin’s comments were similar in 2016. In an exchange captured by a Kremlin transcript, Putin called the leaders of the Soviet Union who forged the treaty with the United States in the late 1980s “naive” for its terms (emphasis added):
Q: Does Russia see any value in this treaty, and if yes, then what exactly? Is it even worthwhile to be part of this treaty?
PUTIN: It would be of great value to us, if other countries followed Russia and the United States. Here’s what we have: the naive former Russian leadership went ahead and eliminated intermediate-range land-based missiles. The Americans eliminated their Pershing missiles, while we scrapped the SS-20 missiles. There was a tragic event associated with this when the chief designer of these systems committed suicide believing that it was a betrayal of national interests and unilateral disarmament.
Why unilateral? Because under that treaty we eliminated our ground complex, but the treaty did not include medium-range sea- and air-based missiles. Air- and sea-based missiles were not affected by it. The Soviet Union simply did not have them, while the United States kept them in service.
What we ultimately got was a clear imbalance: the United States has kept its medium-range missiles. It does not matter whether they are based at sea, in the air, or on land; however, the Soviet Union was simply left without this type of weapons. Almost all of our neighbours make such weapons, including the countries to the east of our borders, and Middle Eastern countries as well, whereas none of the countries sharing borders with the United States, neither Canada nor Mexico, manufacture such weapons. So, for us it is a special test, but nevertheless we believe it is necessary to honour this treaty. All the more so since, as you may be aware, we now also have medium-range sea- and air-based missiles.
That doesn’t sound like someone who will be particularly unhappy without the treaty — which he argued was stacked against his country to begin with. The Russians' flouting of the treaty contributes to the idea that this was punitive, but Russia in some ways seemed to be goading the United States to cancel it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the wrong call, mind you. Termination of such arms control deals has been a pet project of national security adviser John Bolton for years, and he’s a hawk on Russia and many other issues.
But just because it’s saying Russia did something wrong doesn’t necessarily mean Russia will be chastened or won’t like the outcome.