January 31, 2019 |

Midterm Assessment: Russia

January 31, 2019

Midterm Assessment: Russia

Current Policy

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.

Battle tanks during the military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of World War II in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by RIA Novosti/Getty Images)


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.

Javelin anti-tank missile. (Wikimedia Commons)


  1. Rebuild bipartisan and allied consensus. The continued perception that the president gives special deference to Vladimir Putin has been counterproductive both domestically and with our transatlantic allies. Rebuilding consensus depends on acknowledging basic truths about Putin’s repression at home and aggression abroad, in both the physical and cyber domains.
  2. Articulate a comprehensive strategy clearly endorsed by the president. The administration’s national strategy documents provide strong guidance, yet the president’s statements suggest he does not see their words as his own. The administration should put together a comprehensive strategy toward Russia that explains what it seeks in the U.S.-Russia relationship. The new strategy’s effectiveness will depend on a clear presidential endorsement. Congress requested a similar strategy on China and should do the same for Russia if no such strategy from the administration is forthcoming.
  3. Vigorously enforce current sanctions while advancing new designations and other forms of financial pressure. The Trump administration should sanction additional oligarchs and related entities engaged in illicit activities. Where appropriate, it should also add more individuals to the public list by declassifying names from the classified annex of the oligarch report. Similarly, it should ban U.S. financial institutions from acquiring new Russian sovereign debt, help to stand up effective financial intelligence units in Europe’s capitals, and increase cooperation with transatlantic allies to ferret out illicit financial streams linked to the Kremlin and its inner circle. Finally, it should implement punitive measures outlined by the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Action of 1991 for Russia’s noncompliance.
  4. Counter Russian influence in the Middle East. The administration’s new Russia strategy should confirm that countering malign Russian influence in the Middle East and North Africa is in the national security interest of the United States. To advance this goal, the administration should document and publicize Russian atrocities in Syria as well as Moscow’s facilitation of atrocities committed by others; nominate or seek confirmation of ambassadors to Libya, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia; prioritize concerns about Russia in Washington’s bilateral relationship with Egypt; and reassert a more visible diplomatic role in Libya by appointing a special envoy and expanding cooperation in key areas such as energy.
  5. Pressure Russia to stop facilitating North Korean sanctions evasion. Russia remains a leading facilitator of North Korean sanctions evasion despite its support for the UN Security Council resolutions that progressively tightened the sanctions. The president should consistently challenge this misconduct, as he did in his January 2018 observation that Moscow “is not helping us at all with North Korea.”5 Likewise, the Treasury Department should continue to sanction Russian individuals, firms, banks, vessels, and port service providers that aid North Korea.
  6. Challenge Russia’s human rights abuses. Given the efforts the Kremlin has taken to push back against the adoption of the Magnitsky and Global Magnitsky Acts, it is clear that human rights continue to be one of the most effective pressure tools Washington has. The Trump administration should continue to identify and designate Russian officials that have been involved in the extrajudicial killing or unlawful incarceration of regime opponents. President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should highlight such cases in public and in broader bilateral negotiations. Putin must understand there will continue to be a price for human rights abuses.