Trump's Russia strategy has both friends and foes confused

Trump's Russia strategy has both friends and foes confused
© Getty Images

There is a clear gap between President Donald Trump and his administration regarding Russia. While most senior officials use hardline rhetoric toward Moscow, Trump defied their advice to congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin on his re-election and even mentioned a possible White House summit.

Trump’s apparent interest in working with Putin was especially remarkable coming a few days before the U.S. expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle. No wonder that friends and foes alike are confused.


The administration’s objectives are equally confusing. On numerous occasions, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE has called for diplomacy from a position of strength to encourage Russian flexibility on issues important to the United States and ultimately to improve America’s relationship with Moscow.


Increases in defense spending, last year’s missile attacks on Syria’s air base and, more recently, strikes on Russian mercenaries in Syria, new military help to the Baltic states and selling lethal weapons to Ukraine are all steps in that direction.

But pressure on Russia can only work if the United States complements it with meaningful diplomacy and realistic goals. Since Moscow doesn’t seem to be interested in annexing eastern Ukraine and sustaining the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics, the tough-minded but pragmatic U.S. Special Envoy Kurt Volker might feasibly secure an agreement that returns them to Ukrainian control.

But winning the Kremlin’s assent will require offering credible assurances that Ukraine will not join NATO in the foreseeable future while also allowing Russia to maintain its dignity. So far, however, the administration is unwilling to allow Putin to save face and even more averse to pressuring Kiev to delay its NATO aspirations.

Nevermind that nobody is seriously thinking about membership anytime soon; maintaining the principle that Russia has no influence over NATO decisions seems to be prevailing over returning the Donbass to Kiev.

On another contentious matter — Russia’s election interference — Moscow has proposed high-level talks as well as a separate dialogue on cybersecurity. Uncertain how to guarantee Russian compliance and, even more importantly, reluctant to sacrifice America’s right to promote democracy inside Russia, the Trump administration has deferred these discussions.

Few seem ready to acknowledge that tightening Russian domestic controls are erasing American democracy promotion opportunities by the hour. None explain adequately how the United States can prevent future Russian interference without some reciprocal arrangement with Moscow.

When Russians view these policies and others, like sweeping but so far toothless U.S. economic sanctions, they don’t see American efforts to exact specific concessions or even to punish Putin and his entourage. Instead, they see a regime change policy at the expense of Russia’s sovereignty.

Attending an election-night event in Moscow last month, I was struck by the consensus among Putin’s supporters and critics alike that U.S. and European policies and rhetoric are encouraging Russians to close ranks around Putin as a defender and symbol of national sovereignty.

Several people attributed the much higher-than-expected vote for Putin in Moscow and St. Petersburg, normally citadels of liberalism, and the dramatic increase of votes for Putin among Russians abroad to evidence of how the Russian leader has benefited from sanctions and particularly from heated Western criticism following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter (which very few considered to be a Russian action).

And what about the idea that new sanctions could force Russia’s oligarchs to abandon Putin? The popularity of this notion only shows how little Washington understands Russian politics. Unlike Ukraine, Russia has no oligarchs; Putin destroyed them 15 years ago.

Russia’s former oligarchs are in exile, and its remaining tycoons depend on Putin and compete for his favor. They assume that sanctions lists instantly become watchlists for Russia’s security services and, accordingly, that their well-being depends on proving their loyalty to the Kremlin.

Conversely, removing Putin would eliminate their best protection from a wider population resentful of their wealth and privileges.

Reasonable people may disagree about how and why the initially warm post-Cold War relationship between Washington and Moscow has evolved toward confrontation.

Nevertheless, we should by now be able to agree that America and Russia are adversaries and that having Russia as an adversary requires more military spending, greater alliance solidarity and increasingly credible deterrence.

We should also be able to agree that if we consider Russia to be an adversary, we should expect it to act like one. Despite its weaker hand, Moscow will have options other than simply giving up if Russian officials feel cornered. They include closer ties with China as well as using military force, subversion and cyber-warfare.

If you watch Russian government television, you increasingly hear voices advocating enhancing Russia’s alliance with Iran, building new military and economic relations with North Korea, teaching Ukraine a battlefield lesson and even demonstrating the emptiness of NATO’s Article Five through military operations against Latvia and Estonia.

Some even suggest that the best way for Moscow to win new allies and friends is through a display of overwhelming force.

It is a sad comment on the state of America’s foreign policy analysis and its public debates that people in the government and the media, preoccupied with the danger of a few North Korean ICBMs and a non-existent Iranian nuclear arsenal, take a strikingly benign attitude toward the strategic implications of our growing confrontation with Russia.

They want Vladimir Putin to be Saddam Hussein: a monster who can’t defend himself. This is a comfortable but dangerous illusion. Blind confrontation with a nation that possesses a full-scale nuclear arsenal, notwithstanding its other flaws and limitations, is not statesmanship. President Trump is right about that much.

Dimitri Simes is president of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank founded by former President Richard Nixon in 1994. Simes previously served as chairman of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.