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America’s dual foreign policies collide

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The impeachment investigation of President Trump is the first in America’s history in which the charges revolve around foreign policy.

Disclosures from the impeachment will reverberate throughout American foreign policy. In particular, they will affect Ukraine and the wider Central-East European region that remains vulnerable to Russia’s attacks.

The Washington scandal has revealed that under the Trump presidency, the U.S. has followed a dual foreign policy. This has been suspected ever since Trump took office when he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied Russia’s penetration of the U.S. elections and sought to normalize relations with the Kremlin in order to make bargains with America’s key adversary.

Meanwhile, an almost unanimous Congress and Trump’s national security team, despite the frequent change of leadership, basically ignored the president, maintained economic sanctions on Moscow, pushed forward with an enhanced military presence along NATO’s eastern front and supported further NATO enlargement. Despite the personnel changes in the Defense and State Departments and the National Security Council, this policy has proved to be positive and consistent.

These parallel foreign policies could co-exist when Trump and his closest advisers did not actively pursue different objectives or when the president was distracted and preoccupied by domestic policies and simply gave verbal succor to Putin. But Washington’s two policies have openly collided in Ukraine, because of the alleged misuse of military assistance that was already pledged to Kyiv, the catalyst for the impeachment probe.

Trump’s purported efforts to pressure Kyiv to investigate his main political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, for alleged corruption in Ukraine involved the denial of military aid mandated by Congress. Congressional committees are actively looking for evidence to confirm what has already been implied by various officials. The impeachment probe will focus on whether the president leveraged presidential powers to bribe or extort a foreign government in order to benefit personally in the 2020 elections.

The impeachment investigation will have a negative effect on America’s allies and partners in at least four ways. First, allied leaders may be more reticent to talk openly with Trump, especially by telephone, and make agreements with Washington in case the conversations are subsequently made public and investigated.

Second, NATO allies and partners will wonder whether they or other governments will be pressured by the president. This can foster mistrust and suspicion, not only toward the U.S. but also between some of the governments concerned.

Third, several countries may grow anxious about the solidity of NATO itself and question America’s enduring commitments to the alliance. They are likely to conclude that a U.S. president can unilaterally suspend a major policy decision involving existential threats to any state even despite receiving bipartisan consensus in Congress.

And fourth, suspicions will increase in Eastern Europe that the White House may have also engaged in deals with the Kremlin over the heads of NATO allies and partners that will damage their national and security interests. 

The impeachment process will clearly energize Moscow’s ambitions. Putin calculated that a Trump presidency would be beneficial for Russia and has been frustrated because the president cannot deliver on the key Kremlin objective — lifting arduous economic and financial sanctions on Russian oligarchs and state companies involved in the ongoing war against Ukraine. The collision between U.S. policies will now entice Moscow into probing for further weaknesses and divisions among American policy makers.

The Kremlin will also amplify disinformation that it was Ukraine and not Russia that interfered in the 2016 elections in order to help the Democrats. This narrative already features in some of the conspiracy theories designed to defend Trump and whitewash Putin. If widely accepted, such perceptions can give ammunition to the White House in pushing Kyiv to surrender Crimea to Russia and allow the proxy insurgents in the Donbas region to gain “special status” and block Ukraine’s Western integration.

Such a “peace settlement” could then be touted as a major foreign policy success to justify the lifting of sanctions on Russia. Moscow can simultaneously engage in deceptions with other NATO allies and partners in order to undermine their relations with Washington. 

President Obama failed Ukraine and inadvertently encouraged Moscow by denying desperately needed military assistance immediately after Russia’s invasion in 2014. The Trump administration and a bipartisan Congress finally rectified this damage to a NATO partner. But if Congress concludes that the Trump White House was prepared to undermine the security of a vulnerable NATO partner for assistance in a domestic political struggle, this will simply accelerate Moscow’s attacks on American democracy. By feeding disinformation to selected presidential candidates, the Kremlin can aggravate political conflicts in Washington and weaken the NATO alliance without firing a shot.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, D.C. His most recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks.”

Tags Donald Trump Donald Trump foreign poilicy Foreign policy of Donald Trump Joe Biden Moscow NATO NATO Russia Russian hacking attempts during the 2016 presidential election Russian hacking scandal Russian-US relations Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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