U.S. Policy on Russia? Trump and his team might give different answers

Author : Peter Baker

Source : The New York Times

Mr. Trump’s approach toward Russia has attracted new attention with recent reports that the F.B.I. in 2017 opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether the president was acting on Russia’s behalf, that he has gone to unusual lengths to conceal the details of his meetings with Mr. Putin and that he threatened to pull out of NATO
12:18, 22 January 2019

The New York Times

After Russian forces seized three Ukrainian ships in November and threatened to turn the Sea of Azov into a Russian lake, Trump administration officials outlined possible responses like imposing additional sanctions, sending ships to make port calls or deploying monitors.

Two months later, President Trump has not taken significant action despite widespread support within his administration, nor have the European allies. In Moscow, President Vladimir V. Putin’s Kremlin, rather than being deterred, has grown so emboldened that it is talking again about dismantling Ukraine as an independent state.

Mr. Trump’s approach toward Russia has attracted new attention with recent reports that the F.B.I. in 2017 opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether the president was acting on Russia’s behalf, that he has gone to unusual lengths to conceal the details of his meetings with Mr. Putin and that he threatened to pull out of NATO. The president’s lawyer revealed on Sunday that Mr. Trump’s proposed skyscraper in Moscow was under discussion all the way through the November 2016 election.

Mr. Trump has adamantly insisted that there was “no collusion” with Moscow during his campaign and that he has never worked for Russia. He regularly tries to dispel suspicions by declaring that he has done more to counter Russian aggression than other recent presidents have. “I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton,” he wrote on Twitter a week ago.

He has a point. His administration has taken actions that went beyond those of his most recent predecessors, including sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and increased military support for Eastern Europe. His administration has supplied Ukraine with defensive weapons that President Barack Obama refused to provide and announced that it would scrap a nuclear arms treaty in retaliation for Russian cheating.

Yet in at least some of those cases, according to current and former administration officials, Mr. Trump has gone along with such actions only reluctantly or under pressure from advisers or Congress. He has left it to subordinates to publicly criticize Russian actions while personally expressing admiration for Mr. Putin and eagerness to be friends. His recent decision to pull out of Syria was seen as a victory for Russia. And as in the latest Ukraine confrontation, he has for now at least given Moscow a pass.

“You see a policy where the government is pursuing one policy and the president is not with that policy,” said Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine now at Stanford University. “And although he’s claimed he’s done things that make him tougher than other presidents, my impression is that some of these things he’s done he may not even understand them.”

Some analysts more sympathetic to Mr. Trump’s position said other presidents had also tried to maintain friendly relations with leaders of adversarial powers even as their administrations simultaneously applied pressure, a good-cop, bad-cop approach intended to preserve the possibility of improving relations.

“The administration’s policy on Russia — and on China and on North Korea and on Iran — has been tougher than many of his predecessors,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

She said Mr. Trump’s critics refused to give him credit for actions that he approved. “The double standard that everything bad that happens is Donald Trump’s fault and everything good that happens is not is not sustainable,” she said.

Mr. Trump came to office intent on improving relations with Moscow, which have deteriorated over the years with Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. In the early days of Mr. Trump’s presidency, his team contemplated lifting some sanctions imposed by Mr. Obama.

But with intelligence reports about Russian interference in the 2016 election on Mr. Trump’s behalf, Republican lawmakers made clear to Mr. Trump that easing pressure was untenable. Indeed, worried that the president would not be tough enough on Russia, Congress passed legislation on nearly unanimous, bipartisan votes mandating further sanctions. Mr. Trump objected and signed the bill only when it was clear any veto would be overridden.

After Russian agents were determined to have poisoned a former Russian spy living in Britain last year, advisers urged Mr. Trump to retaliate. Since the targeted spy had been part of a 2010 spy swap that included others now living in the United States, advisers told Mr. Trump that Russian assassins might already be in America to kill them. Only by taking tough action, he was told, would they be deterred.

Mr. Trump went along and ordered 60 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers out of the country, roughly matching the total expelled by European countries. But afterward he grew angry that he had agreed when he learned that European powers were not each expelling the same number as the United States, only collectively.

Soon afterward, Mr. Trump’s advisers prepared additional sanctions to respond to Russia’s support for Syria following a chemical weapons attack on civilians. Nikki R. Haley, then the ambassador to the United Nations, even announced the sanctions on television.

But after launching a missile strike against Syrian targets, Mr. Trump opted against sanctions since Moscow did not escalate the conflict. Aides said at the time that he was convinced that Russia had gotten the message and therefore sanctions were unnecessary. Evidently no one told Ms. Haley.

Some veteran Russia policymakers said there was more continuity from Mr. Obama to Mr. Trump than the president’s own public statements might make it seem.

“On balance, I actually support the Trump administration policy toward Russia mostly,” said Michael A. McFaul, who was Mr. Obama’s ambassador to Moscow. “That’s the policy. The problem is, I don’t see any evidence that President Trump supports that policy. On the contrary, he seems to take the exact opposite view.”

Critics argue that Mr. Trump undercuts his administration’s actions by seeming to accept Mr. Putin’s denials of election interference over the reports of his own intelligence agencies. They say he effectively parrots Kremlin talking points by denigrating NATO and endorsing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

“What is tough about any of the actions that Trump has taken vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin?” asked Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “He’s an equal-opportunity abuser, Democrats and Republicans. The one person he’s never said a negative word about is Vladimir Putin.”

The White House rejected the criticism. “President Trump has repeatedly made clear he does not and will not tolerate Russian malign activity,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in an email on Sunday. “He has taken decisive and strong actions against Russia to defend American interests and hold Russia accountable for its behavior, including significant sanctions.”

A dispute over sanctions on Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Mr. Putin, underscores the president’s credibility problem when it comes to Russia. Sanctions on Mr. Deripaska’s aluminum interests generated an immense blowback from alarmed allies in Europe, who argued that the move would jeopardize more than 75,000 workers in Europe’s aluminum industry.

The Treasury Department agreed to ease the sanctions to avoid unintended consequences if Mr. Deripaska reduced his ownership interests. But many in Congress saw it as another nod to Mr. Putin and came close to overturning it with bipartisan votes in both houses last week.

“The big problem with Trump’s policy is that it doesn’t add up,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who served as ambassador to former Soviet republics in the 1990s. “If you have a policy that doesn’t add up, you won’t win support for it. And if nobody supports it, how tough can it really be?”

When it comes to Ukraine, Mr. Trump’s administration has gone further than Mr. Obama’s in some respects. Most prominently, it provided more than 200 Javelin anti-tank missiles plus three dozen launchers last year.

The Javelins, however, have been stored at a base in western Ukraine far from the front lines. The administration has insisted that they were meant as defensive weapons and could be deployed rapidly in case of a new Russian incursion.

The recent naval confrontation in the Kerch Strait has tested Mr. Trump. Nearly two months later, Russia has refused to release the ships or sailors. Mr. Trump canceled a meeting in Buenos Aires with Mr. Putin, then pulled him aside at a summit leaders’ dinner and told him the standoff needed to be solved, aides said.

Administration officials have developed possible responses, including enacting new sanctions, increasing NATO naval presence in the Black Sea, sending allied ships to make calls at Ukrainian ports, deploying NATO or European Union monitors into uncontested Ukrainian territory to serve as a deterrent, and stationing unarmed observers on Ukrainian ships as they transit the Kerch Strait.

So far, Mr. Trump has approved none of these, stymied in part by the Europeans, who have not agreed to a coordinated response. But administration officials said responses were still under consideration. And the American destroyer Donald Cook entered the Black Sea this weekend to make a point to Moscow.

In the meantime, analysts said, American policy remains bifurcated by the disparity of Mr. Trump’s statements and his administration’s actions. “I just see this dichotomy there,” Mr. Pifer said. “I don’t know how it gets resolved.”

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