Russian forces are now operating between the Turkish and Syrian militaries, helping to fulfill Moscow’s main aim of shoring up its alliance with Syria and the Russian military port housed there — an outcome Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought for years.
And without lifting a finger, Putin was able to extend leverage over Ukraine, the fragile democratic neighbor he would like to control more directly, as a result of Trump’s treatment of the country’s popular new leader.
Trump’s actions in Syria and Ukraine add to the list of policy moves and public statements that have boosted Russia during his presidency, whether that was their central purpose or not, confounding critics who have warned that he has taken too soft a stance toward a nation led by a strongman hostile to the United States.
Trump has publicly questioned the usefulness of NATO — the post-World War II military alliance established as a bulwark against first the Soviet Union and now Russia — as well as the utility of the European Union, a political and economic alliance Putin would love to weaken. He recently advocated that Moscow be allowed to rejoin the Group of Seven, a few years after it was kicked out of the group of leading world economies following its invasion of Crimea.
Trump has also disputed, at times, the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to boost his candidacy, and he only reluctantly signed a bill imposing sanctions on Russia for the transgression after weeks of resisting the measure, which he called “seriously flawed.”
“Because of his weird desire to please Vladimir Putin, Trump keeps doing things that are not in our interest,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former senior Pentagon official responsible for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration who has been critical of Trump.
Trump and his allies have rejected the notion that he has been soft on Russia, noting that his administration has sold arms to Ukraine to combat Russia’s aggression when the Obama administration did not. The administration also expelled 60 Russian diplomats and closed the Russian Consulate in Seattle last year in solidarity with Britain after the poisoning of a Russian former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury, England, which then-Prime Minister Theresa May blamed on Russia.
But the actions regarding Syria and Ukraine have once again highlighted the ways Russia has benefited from Trump’s foreign policy decisions.
Andrew Bennett, a Russia specialist at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said it is not clear how closely Russia is coordinating with Turkey on its military offensive in northern Syria at the expense of the Kurds, who had been U.S. fighting partners against the Islamic State, “but what is clear is that Russia and the [Bashar al-]Assad regime that it backs have been the big winners in Trump’s abrupt retreat.”
Putin had been looking for ways to cut his losses in Syria after Russian-led diplomacy fizzled and after the embarrassment of losing an unknown number of mercenaries in a U.S. airstrike last year, Bennett said.
“Now, suddenly Putin is back in the driver’s seat in Syria, with leverage over all sides,” including Turkey, which has purchased Russian air defenses despite strenuous U.S. objections, Bennett said.
Trump and U.S. officials have said his withdrawal was a practical move ahead of a Turkish invasion that was long planned by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and that he could not stop.
“I think that what the Turks decided to do, what Erdogan decided to do, was extremely rash but certainly not in any way greenlighted by the president of the United States,” Victoria Coates, the senior White House Mideast adviser, told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday.
But Putin is “an opportunist,” and Trump gave him an opportunity, said Farkas.
“The Trump administration was handed an imperfect situation, but they have absolutely squandered any leverage we had and now actually created the biggest foreign policy blunder since the Iraq War,” she said.
James Jay Carafano, a senior foreign policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed that Putin will grab a chance when he sees one, but he disagreed that Trump has helped Russia significantly or cost the United States much in Syria.
Syria is a “strategic dead end” for Putin, Carafano said.
“He’s just the ultimate ambulance-chaser. He’s going to show up everywhere and try to take advantage of it,” he said. “That’s his MO, and if he didn’t show up we’d be worried, like he’s sick or something. But does it mean Russia does anything dramatically different in Syria? I doubt it.”
Under intense pressure from lawmakers in both parties, the Trump administration has been seeking ways to get Erdogan to back off his offensive, and Monday it called for a cease-fire while levying sanctions on Turkey.
Vice President Pence is leading a U.S. delegation to Turkey this week at Trump’s request, and Erdogan is scheduled to visit the White House next month.
But critics contend that it may be too late to change the situation on the ground in Syria because, following the troop withdrawal, too much damage has already been done in the region.
Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine became central to House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry after he used a July phone conversation with President Volodymyr Zelensky to ask for investigations of his Democratic political rivals. Former administration officials have told Congress that Trump conditioned a meeting with Zelensky on the new Ukrainian president’s cooperation.
During that call, Trump did not mention long-standing U.S. policy goals for Ukraine, including standing up to Russian pressure, and he may have tarred and weakened Zelensky and his winning anti-corruption platform by dragging him into domestic U.S. politics.
The result: A country that was looking for signs of strong U.S. backing, amid worries that Russia could seek to move its aggression beyond the annexation of Crimea, has been left to wonder about the Trump administration’s commitment to its national interests.
Trump made no promises and publicly urged Zelensky to negotiate with Putin when he finally did, in September, meet the young Ukrainian, who is now mocked by some at home as “Monica Zelensky” for his inadvertent role in the impeachment saga.
Zelensky has since agreed to a Putin-approved political deal on the restive area along the Russian border. Zelensky’s predecessor had rejected the idea as too generous to Moscow.
One interpretation is that Zelensky was eager to move on with his own agenda and saw the agreement as a way to mitigate other problems. Another is that he felt pressured by Trump.
Putin had watched as Ukraine rejected candidates with closer ties to Moscow in favor of the anti-corruption Zelensky, a former television star and Russian-speaker who is also well-known in Russia, Farkas said. If Zelensky is unable to deliver on his agenda, Putin wins, she added.
“The Ukrainian government is trying very hard not to get involved in our domestic political problem, and they are being dragged in by Donald Trump and his cronies, who are still trying to muddy the waters with regard to Russia’s interference in our election in 2016,” Farkas said. “Russia benefits because the word ‘corruption’ has now been linked in the minds of the American people with Ukraine, which is unfortunate because really the word ‘democracy’ is the word that should be linked in the minds of the American people.”