Russia is testing Trump's reactions

Russia is testing Trump's reactions
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The White House is engaged in a self-defeating strategy by failing to respond strongly to another Russian attack on the U.S. The evasive reaction to a reported Russian bounty for the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan indicates that President Trump may be willing to ignore the Kremlin’s campaign against U.S. interests in order to strike a new deal with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinLincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad How conservative conspiracy theories are deepening America's political divide Trump administration praises UK sanctions on human rights abusers MORE if re-elected in November. 

Trump has remained largely silent despite a series of Russian provocations against U.S. forces. The president’s reticence encourages Putin to escalate, to highlight America’s leadership vulnerabilities and to test Trump’s fealty to a new detente. The provocations have included frequent Russian overflights of U.S. Navy ships, erratic movements by Russian surveillance ships off the U.S. coast and dangerous navy encounters precipitated by Russian vessels in several locations. Instead of vigorous condemnations of such aggression and counter-actions to demonstrate American capabilities, Trump has asked for Russia to return to the G-7 Group of industrialized states and has tried to prevent tougher congressionally mandated sanctions on Russian individuals and companies for their role in the invasion of Ukraine and for Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. elections.

Putin is calculating that in a second term Trump would be less restrained in forging a bilateral deal with Moscow and may ignore Congress and his national security team. Regardless of whether Russian intelligence services possess highly damaging personal or financial information that Trump is desperate to hide, the president may also genuinely believe that Washington can work with Moscow to resolve various global challenges. Putin has tried to exploit this naive notion during the pandemic to lower American defenses and gain geopolitical advantages. 

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In the event of Trump’s re-election, Moscow will demand that the most onerous financial sanctions be removed on its key oligarchs and no new sanctions imposed. This would enhance Russia’s ability to engage in energy blackmail, expand its political corruption networks and legitimize its illegal annexation of Crimea and the occupation of eastern Ukraine. Trump could also be persuaded by Putin to further curtail U.S. military presence in Europe, following his recent announcement that the number of American forces in Germany will be substantially scaled down. Trump’s frequent criticisms of the EU and NATO will encourage the Kremlin to exploit the president’s various grievances and use him as a tool in its anti-Western offensive.

The proposed rapprochement will be based on the erroneous premise that Washington can forge a productive partnership with Putin. In reality, Moscow seeks Washington’s acceptance of its claims to control the foreign, security and alliance policies of neighbors that were once part of the Tsarist or Soviet empires. Such a scheme was evident in the European Security Treaty drafted by Moscow after its invasion of Georgia in August 2008. It claimed that Russia itself could guarantee the security of its former satellites. The treaty was rejected at the time, but the primary goals have remained unchanged and it may appeal to Trump and a more isolationist second administration.

Trump’s belief that Washington can work productively with the Kremlin in confronting global challenges is not based on any credible evidence. In every suggested arena of cooperation, Moscow actively cultivates conflicts to undermine Western interests. It supports regimes and terrorist groups across the Middle East that are sworn enemies of the U.S., including in Afghanistan. It weakens Europe’s energy security and pursues supply monopolies. It threatens NATO allies along the eastern flank and nurtures armed conflicts in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan to keep neighbors off balance and outside Western institutions. And its interventions in the Western Balkans contribute to stirring ethnic and inter-state animosities that Washington and Brussels struggle to resolve. 

The White House should also jettison the misguided premise that Moscow follows international rules once it has signed an agreement. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the purpose of any negotiations is to trick the adversary into conceding ground for its previous aggression. The unimplemented Six Point Peace Plan in Georgia, the broken agreement to withdraw troops from Moldova and the violated Budapest Memorandum, which guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity, are the most glaring examples of Moscow’s duplicity. 

The Kremlin will offer geopolitical agreements to Trump that may look appealing but will be crafted to undercut America’s global presence and isolate its European allies. Putin’s overriding objective is to divide the world into distinct spheres of influence. In this schema, Russia would dominate a Eurasian “pole of power” that includes half of Europe and neutralize the other half by weakening NATO’s security posture, dividing the European Union, and severing the trans-Atlantic link. It seems that even the targeted killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan will not embolden Trump to finally condemn Putin’s actions and ambitions.

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