National Security

In surprise, Trump maintains many Obama-era Russia policies

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The Trump administration has quietly maintained an Obama-era approach to countering aggression from Moscow even as the president’s dismissal of Russian meddling in the election and warm words toward that country’s leader have scandalized Washington.

It approved the largest commercial sale of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine since 2014 — a move that earned praise from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill — and implemented sanctions targeting people in Russia for human rights abuses under a U.S. law some onlookers fretted the president might try to evade.

It increased the budget for the European Deterrence Initiative, an effort begun under former President Obama to bolster allies’ defenses in response to Russian aggression, and deployed U.S. soldiers to Poland as part of a majority-U.S. NATO task force.

{mosads}And it is poised to announce more sanctions against Russia, faced with a Jan. 29 deadline to name targets under a separate law grudgingly signed by President Trump over the summer.

Even some Obama officials call the approach “mainstream.”

“The policy has been [in] continuity with the Obama administration post-2014, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said Daniel Fried, who under Obama served as the State Department’s sanctions coordinator.

“I think the actual policies on the ground have been pretty good,” said Fried, who also worked as a senior official on Russia issues during the Bush administration.

But those policies have been obscured by the president’s unusually warm rhetoric toward the Kremlin.

In a speech earlier this month designed to roll out his national security strategy — a document that labels Russia a “revisionist” power and casts it as a fundamental competitor of the United States  — Trump eschewed the tough language and said it was his desire to build a “great partnership” with Moscow. He recounted a phone call from Russian President Vladimir Putin thanking him for an intelligence tip as “the way it’s supposed to work.”

Trump also discounts the intelligence community’s assessment that Putin personally directed an influence campaign during the 2016 election to help install him in office. The Russian president has denied the charges and Trump has said that he “believe[s] that when he tells me that, he means it.”

Current officials dismissed the notion that there is any inconsistency between the president’s attitude toward Russia and the administration’s policies.

“If you look at the actions that we take, those are the things that ultimately matter. Those are the things that we’re doing,” an administration official told The Hill.

The president’s language is an important part of that broader strategy because it highlights “what we want our relationship to be,” the official said. “I don’t know anyone who works on Russia who would tell you it’s not in our interests to have a good relationship with the Russians.”

But, the official continued, “We do have this two-pronged approach — we want to find areas of cooperation with them but at the same time we’re not just going to stand by idly and let them run over us.”

In general, the official said, “the type of actions that you’ve seen are consistent” with the previous administration.

In the early months of his presidency, speculation churned that Trump would back away from U.S. NATO commitments in the region, roll back Obama-era sanctions punishing Moscow for meddling in the 2016 election and return two diplomatic compounds widely believed to be a home base for Russian spies.

But in reality, former diplomats say, the administration’s concrete policies suggest a modest toughening against Russia.

The European Deterrence budget increase was “a very big deal,” according to Fried — and an apparent reversal of Trump’s claims on the campaign trail that NATO was “obsolete.”

The lethal weapons sale to the Ukrainian army earned praise from lawmakers in both parties, as did the implementation of the congressionally-mandated Magnitsky Act sanctions, which Fried said was “a sound piece of work.”

And although the administration fiercely opposed the new set of sanctions passed by Congress in August — the administration official cited technical concerns — it appears poised to implement them by the end of next month.

“So far, if you read the interpretive guidance that State and Treasury have sent out, it’s been solid,” said Fried. “It has not felt, to me, like somebody was putting the brakes on.”

The administration has also declined so far to return the Russian diplomatic compounds, or dachas, seized by the Obama administration as part of a slate of penalties for its active measures campaign during the election.

In that case, Congress has tied the administration’s hands. The new sanctions law also prevents the administration from returning the compounds without congressional approval.

Before that law was passed, the official said, the administration had “gone back and forth with the Russians on how to do this and they consistently turned down our different approaches.” The official declined to offer specifics on what conditions the administration offered.

Despite Trump’s promises of a warmer relationship, U.S.-Russia relations have remained sour. The two governments have engaged in a tit-for-tat of forcing diplomatic closures and accusing each other of violating a 30-year-old arms control agreement.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in an op-ed that the U.S. has a “a poor relationship with a resurgent Russia.”

Critics say there are still soft spots in the administration’s Russia policies — notably on Syria, where some say the U.S. has ceded influence to Moscow.

Although the U.S. is pushing Russia to adhere to a November commitment made by Trump and Putin to resolve the conflict through the Geneva peace process, Russia is continuing to pursue negotiations along a separate track.

The administration has also muted previous warnings to Russia about the role of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is backed by Moscow. And in July, Trump ended a covert CIA program to arm moderate Syrian rebels fighting against Assad — a move long sought by Russia.

But the most significant hole critics see is in the administration’s response to Russia’s election meddling.

Trump’s new national security strategy takes aim at Russia for “undermining the legitimacy of democracies,” but does not mention the U.S. election specifically.

Many former officials believe that the Obama administration did not go far enough to counter the Russian campaign — and they think Trump is unlikely to establish a real deterrence strategy in advance of the 2018 midterms.

The president has been infuriated by the federal investigation into the matter, which has led to the indictment of several senior campaign officials. He has fiercely denied any “collusion” with the Russian government and called the probe “the single greatest witch hunt in American political history.”

“Because it gets tied up in the president’s mind with questioning the legitimacy of his election, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to get there with this administration,” said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine. “And I think that’s unfortunate, because that will be an invitation to the Russians to continue what they have been doing.”

The official who spoke to The Hill said that the administration is “actively working” on the issue.

“The fact that we’re not talking about some things doesn’t mean we’re not working on them.”

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Donald Trump Foreign policy of Donald Trump International relations International sanctions during the Ukrainian crisis Politics Presidency of Donald Trump Rex Tillerson Russia Russia–United States relations Vladimir Putin

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