Trump’s policy of deference towards Putin is no basis for a deal

Trump’s policy of deference towards Putin is no basis for a deal

Yesterday’s press conference with President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE and Russian President Vladimir Putin has placed the Trump Administration’s Russia strategy on the table for the world to see. That strategy—of public deference to Putin—runs counter to many of the principles and international norms the United States has strived to establish since the end of World War II. Instead of advocating for the very things America has done well for decades, when directly challenged by the press, President Trump chose not to stake any public positions contrary to Russian policies in his appearance with Putin. The only true contrarian statements were those by Putin, who did not shy away from highlighting areas of disagreement.

Dealing with Russia should not be about dealing in niceties—it should be about the business of the relationship—something our president should understand clearly. America has interests, and Russia has differing interests, so we should pursue and defend our interests vehemently. Where those interests overlap, we can work together. Contrary to President Trump’s statements at the press conference, the U.S. has tried to play nice with Russia before. It has tried to reset the relationship. It has made efforts to reach out and work on areas of cooperation. But Putin has chosen to rebuke these efforts in favor of territorial annexation and international destabilization. While President Trump routinely states it would be great if America got along with Russia, it would be better if the phrase were turned around: Russia should get along with America. America’s contributions to the world have been both significant and positive. But the public position of the American President now appears to include publicly berating the allies that have contributed to the American vision of the world, while acquiescing to those who have opposed it.

When looking at the conduct of Russia over the past 5 years, it’s no wonder that we can’t simply just get along. Yet during the press conference, President Trump took the initiative of blaming the problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship on the Mueller probe. On its face, this is a false premise, as the tensions between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers is caused by a litany of issues completely unrelated to election interference. For starters, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, its support for the brutal Assad regime in Syria, and its deliberate military provocations in the air and at sea against the U.S. and its European allies. Despite Trump’s assertion, the Mueller probe is in no way responsible for the current state of affairs—rather, it is a consequence. The probe is a direct response to hostile action that the entire U.S. intelligence community has determined Russia took against the United States in 2016.


Despite these areas of opposition, it is clear there are indeed areas of mutual interest in the U.S.-Russia relationship, as both Putin and Trump mentioned during the press conference. Some of these areas would seem obvious: counterterrorism, disarmament, space exploration. Others make complete sense to pursue, including scientific research, medical cooperation, and management of the Arctic. However, research performed at the American Security Project on possible areas of cooperation has outlined a number of difficulties in pursuing cooperation with Russia.


Counter-terrorism cooperation in Syria produces the very real risk of increasing civilian casualties, especially given Russia’s lack of regard for human rights, differences in technological capability, and possible conflicts in targeting priorities. Cooperation in Syria also puts the U.S. in the position of tacitly supporting Bashar al-Assad, betraying those we have worked with to secure many of the hard victories that have been won. Throw Assad’s use of chemical weapons while allied with Russia into that mix, and the premise of cooperation becomes less appealing. That’s not to say there aren’t ways to cooperate in this field, but geopolitically, the outlook is grim.

Though both presidents made much of the joint efforts of our militaries to work together, particularly with regards to Syria, we must not forget that the Russian military has routinely jeopardized the safety of our military personnel. In recent years, Russia has made hundreds of violations of military professionalism, buzzing aircraft and ships in unsafe ways, violating territorial airspace, and flying without transponders activated. This puts lives at unnecessary risk, raising the prospect of an incident such as a collision, or the use of weapons in defensive action.

On the disarmament front, American and Russian strategic nuclear weapons forces are currently mutually bound by the New START treaty, which limits the total number of deployed strategic weapons and platforms. Thankfully, Russia appears interested in extending the New START treaty. But ironically, in one of the few security areas in which the U.S. previously agreed with Russia, the Iran Deal, the Trump Administration has taken a contrary position—one which Putin noted at the Helsinki press conference. Aside from New START, the disarmament field is a bit of a mess. Russia has outright violated the INF Treaty negotiated by the Reagan Administration, flaunted its aims to build nuclear torpedoes and long-range nuclear cruise missiles, and displayed animations of nuclear weapons targeting Florida. Meanwhile, the United States is entertaining proposals to build submarine-launched low-yield nuclear warheads. The situation is becoming more dangerous.

The President has built his reputation on his ability to secure deals, and there are a great number of deals to be made with Russia. But we mustn’t forget that Putin’s goal is not to secure deals, it is to divide.

President Trump publicly said yesterday that he sees no reason why Russia would interfere with the U.S. elections, and if he truly doesn’t, then he is fundamentally missing the point of Russia’s negotiating strategy. Russia’s strategy is to sow chaos and disunity, because chaos and disunity prevent the United States and its European allies from presenting a united front—and thus collective leverage—against Russia. Putin’s motivations for election interference are emblematic in its foreign policy: from spreading disinformation through outlets like RT, to supporting the Brexit campaign and other disruptive political movements throughout Europe. Russia would like nothing more than to see divisions and squabbles in and between its rivals. Based on what we saw play out in Helsinki yesterday, and at the NATO conference last week, Russia is winning. Some deal, some mess.

Matthew Wallin is a Fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan national security think tank. He is the author of a 2017 White Paper “U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Russia” that details areas of cooperation and conflict in the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewRWallin