Trump-Putin relationship sours as White House gets tough on Russia

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The relationship between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin has all the elements of a souring high school romance. It began with exhilarating flirtation. Last July, world leaders witnessed the private whispers between the two at a Group of 20 dinner in Hamburg. Now the White House staff whispers to the American president that he should dump the untrustworthy Russian.

It’d be humorous if it weren’t so grave. Foreign policy and national security are grounded in three things: clarity, consistency and coherence. None of those defines the current projection of U.S. interests to Moscow.

{mosads}Last May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were chumming it up with Trump in the Oval Office, hours after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Last week, Russia’s new ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, complained that American officials won’t meet with him. He may be so unpopular that he can’t even get a date with a freshman congresswoman at Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Only last month, Trump defied the advice of his staff and congratulated Putin for his victory in a blatantly rigged election. In that conversation, he didn’t raise the unpleasantry of the attempted poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil. Now “Potus & Putin 4ever” are barely speaking. Also not speaking are the hundreds of diplomatic personnel each leader has expelled from their respective countries.

In July 2017, President Trump bristled when Congress passed sanctions to punish Moscow for meddling in our elections. Now, inside the White House, a war is waged between anti-Russia hawks who want a “get tough” response towards Russia and the president himself, who can’t seem to end it with Russia’s bad-boy. You can just hear Jennifer Holliday singing “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”

To be fair, every president’s foreign policies evolve and some even shift too quickly. But this one needs a neck brace. The danger is this: When foreign and defense policies aren’t clear, consistent and coherent, they can trigger miscalculation. Nowhere in geopolitics — with the exception of North Korea and China — is that so perilous as it is with Russia.

Last Friday, according to the New York Times, the Pentagon wasn’t provided with notice of a Russian ICBM test. Looking ahead, catastrophic miscalculation lurks in the next cyberattack, which could be easily attributed by hostile hackers to the United States or Russia, or in Syria, where Russian and U.S. operations must be constantly de-conflicted, or in Ukraine, where a crisis can lead to catastrophe, or even a rogue operation.

The current crisis between Moscow, Washington and our allies was triggered by the attempted assassination of Skripal. One theory (in my view, highly dubious) is that the poisoning may have been a Russian “freelance” operation not specifically known to Putin. Yet, in the current deteriorating environment, malevolent forces like that could wreak havoc.

Both countries ambassadors remain in place with healthy, if strained, staff. But the expulsion of hundreds of personnel means that on-the-ground analysis and reporting will be less informed, less subject to challenge from other sources, and of far lower quality.

It’s indisputable that Russia under Putin is an increasingly hostile, aggressive power, acting against liberal democracies, meddling in our political process, undermining our allies and violating international law, including the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jet in 2014. Those in the White House advocating a tougher policy — in this case, the end of the president’s not-so-innocent flirtation — are correct. But tough means smart, calculating and clearheaded.

Of course, President Trump may think he’s playing a clever game of good cop-bad cop, projecting to the Kremlin that he’s under pressure to escalate unless they behave. But head games should worry us against a calculator like Putin, when the potential for miscalculation is higher than at any time since the 1960s and managed by a mostly inexperienced White House staff that comes and goes at the whim of this president.

This isn’t a high school fling. This is the future of two nuclear superpowers. This is where the head must overrule the heart.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published this month.

Tags Donald Trump Foreign policy James Comey National security Nuclear weapons Russia Steve Israel United States Vladimir Putin White House

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