There has been a sharp divergence between the Trump administration’s firm course of action toward Russia and the president’s controversial defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin from accusations of grave human rights violations and interference in U.S. elections.
On the military front, the Trump administration has continued to support imperiled U.S. allies on the Russian periphery. In April 2018, the administration provided Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, a move the Obama administration rejected as too provocative. The U.S. Air Force also participated in the first air exercise in Ukraine in 2018, which built upon previous ground exercises between U.S. and Ukrainian troops.
The administration likewise delivered anti-tank weapons to Georgia last year and held important military exercises with the Georgians on the 10th anniversary of the Russian invasion in 2008. This past April, President Trump hosted the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at the White House, and announced a $170 million military assistance package, U.S. troop participation in multinational exercises, and funding to fight disinformation campaigns from Moscow.
The administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy clearly identify Russia as a critical threat. The former singles out Russia, along with China, as a major power that wants “to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests.” It warns, “Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners.” The strategy describes how Russia employs modernized subversive tactics, including offensive cyber efforts, to interfere in others domestic political affairs “in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.”1
According to the new defense strategy, “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with Russia and China (emphasis in original). The U.S. cannot avoid this conflict because its great power adversaries seek hegemony “in the form of veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.”2
The administration has employed law enforcement measures and economic sanctions as a principal means of confronting immediate challenges posed by Russia. For example, the Treasury Department issued sanctions designations against those connected with cyberattacks on behalf of the Russian military and intelligence services, while the Department of Justice has handed down indictments against those working to undermine the U.S. political system. In October 2018, U.S. Cyber Command also indicated that it had started operations to deter Russian operatives from interfering in the U.S. political system. However, large gaps remain, particularly at the state and local level and in the private sector.
In part, it is difficult for the government to mobilize when the president disputes, as he did at the Helsinki Summit, the intelligence community’s finding that Russia has interfered in U.S. elections. Similarly, the U.S. cannot pursue a vigorous human rights policy if the president does not acknowledge that Putin is responsible for killing dissidents both at home and abroad.
The administration appears to be pursuing two Russia policies at once, a contradiction that prevents either from being fully effective. The president’s effort to improve ties with Russia has not gained traction, largely due to Moscow’s intransigence and malign activity. Yet efforts to hold Russia accountable for its aggression and subversion are also not fully effective due to the president’s resistance to exerting personal pressure on his Russian counterpart.
The administration appears to be pursuing two Russia policies at once, a contradiction that prevents either from being fully effective.
The president’s approach is also at odds with broad bipartisan support in Congress for holding Russia accountable. The most important expression of this sentiment was overwhelming support for the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which the president signed in 2017 since Congress would have easily overridden a veto.
American policy has imposed significant costs on Russia, yet there is no clear indication that these have affected Putin’s strategic calculus. Treasury’s April 2018 sanctions against Russian oligarchs sent the Russian market reeling as well as hurting those individuals and entities designated.3 The administration’s congressionally mandated list of Russian oligarchs continues to cause consternation for those who are listed publicly, while generating ample speculation about who might be included in the classified version.
American policy has imposed significant costs on Russia, yet there is no clear indication that these have affected Putin’s strategic calculus.
Alongside its designation of over 200 individuals and entities, the administration ordered the closure of six diplomatic facilities and the removal of 60 spies from the United States over the past two years. As Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, explained in congressional testimony, “Our policy remains unchanged: steady cost-imposition until Russia changes course.”4 That change has yet to happen.
In Ukraine, the Russian invasion has settled into a long and bloody conflict in the country’s easternmost provinces. The implementation of essential domestic reforms continues to be an uphill battle for Kyiv. Without stability and prosperity for ordinary Ukrainians, the Kremlin’s wait-it-out approach is likely to succeed. American support for the Baltic states has been consistent, yet their leaders fear being sacrificed as part of a broader U.S.-Russia agreement.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the administration sorely lacks a strategy for countering Russia’s growing influence. Moscow has proven repeatedly that when there is a cleavage in U.S. relations with a regional partner or a power vacuum, it is happy to step in and exploit the situation. The planned drawdown of U.S. troops in Syria and potentially other areas will only help increase Moscow’s influence with our friends and foes. Russia is already courting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Sisi government in Egypt while working to establish inroads among the warring factions in Libya.
At home, Russia remains as repressive as ever, while its agents have employed chemical weapons to poison opponents abroad. Putin has little reason to fear that even his most brazen acts will provoke the U.S. to challenge the fundamental legitimacy of his regime.