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Trump Needs a Russia Policy, or Putin Will Force One on Him

Trump Needs a Russia Policy, or Putin Will Force One on Him

The resignation of Michael Flynn, President Trump’s national security advisor, and the attendant stories about chaos and dysfunction in the White House, have highlighted the importance of personality and process in national security policymaking. But more important is the actual content of foreign policy — and it’s here that the Trump administration seems to be most seriously lacking. Unintentionally or not, the White House still appears to have no firm policy on the greatest threats facing the United States. In order of their priority they are: 1) Russia’s challenge to democracy in America and abroad; 2) the proliferation of nuclear weapons to North Korea and Iran; 3) global terrorism; and 4) China’s military bullying in the South and East China Seas.

Let’s dive into the first one, the one that most directly bears on Flynn’s downfall. The immediate threat posed by Russia to the United States is its ongoing effort to interfere with American democratic process through cyber-operations, false “news” stories, and the manipulation of advisors such as Flynn, Carter Page and Paul Manafort, and even President Trump. Congress, by investigating all of this, can, and should, provide not only answers to open questions, but remedies to existing vulnerabilities.

In the meantime, however, the United States needs a policy towards Russia — fast. Why fast? Because Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin are expecting cooperation, and possibly a deal from President Trump, and they probably see it as a matter of some urgency. Specifically, they need it before the 2018 Russian elections, when any rapprochement is liable to be chucked in favor of anti-Americanism, a complement to Russian nationalism, which is a tried and true vote-getter.

If Trump is slow in offering a deal, Moscow will likely create a crisis to force the issue, and thus test the White House’s commitment to cooperation. Already there are signs of this: fighting in Ukraine has picked up and there are rumors of a new Russian offensive. Meanwhile, Belorussian President Alexsander Lukashenko, who has an independent country because Moscow lets him, has been more critical and resistant to Moscow lately; if he pushes too much, it’s possible to imagine Putin blatantly occupying Belarus. Alternatively, the Russian military could publicly admit to developing and even fielding a new missile in violation of the U.S.-Soviet Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty negotiated by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. The Trump administration can ignore yesterday’s New York Times article on this, but not a Russian corroboration.

What most Americans don’t understand is that the Kremlin believes it is already in what I would call a soft war with the United States and major democracies. It is a war without bullets, amid what we call peace. Against the United States, they use fake news, propaganda, bribery, cyber operations, and physical harassment of our diplomats. Against other countries, they use all of these plus invasion, occupation, murder, and, in Syria, bombing civilians into dust. They ally with far-right, populist, nationalist movements, generally, and share messages and other tactics globally. Russia is doing all of this illegally, breaking international laws and challenging the international system.

Russia is operating in this fashion in order to obtain a free hand to do as it wishes in Europe and elsewhere. The key to making Russian gains stick, and Russian power prevail is to make a deal with the president of the United States, something the Kremlin also sought from Obama. A deal from Trump is urgent and important to Putin.

So far Moscow has not used military force against the United States or our allies. But the risk that the Kremlin might do so as a result of an accident and misunderstanding rises with each Russian violation of European and Japanese airspace (three Russian bombers attempted to commit such violations as recently as Jan. 24) or buzzing of U.S. military ships and planes. The threat of miscalculation is equally dangerous. Russian military doctrine affirms the right to nuclear first strike, and alarmingly, military escalation in order to shock an opponent into surrender or not fighting at all. An escalatory attack could involve use of cyber weapons on an opponent’s society, economy and critical infrastructure or even use of a tactical nuclear demonstration explosion or attack. The idea that the United States would capitulate in the face of such attacks is sheer stupidity. But the Russian military believes it is a necessary counter in the face of U.S. overwhelming superior conventional power.

America’s Russia policy should be designed to give us sufficient leverage to get a deal in keeping with U.S. interest and values. We need to continue to bolster forces and capabilities in the NATO countries in order to deter Russia from military intervention. We must also arm and train the countries experiencing Russia occupation and military intervention — like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Syria – in pursuit of a negotiated a peace in those countries. We must initiate a new dialogue about nuclear and issues related to the balance of military power between the United States and Russia (“strategic stability”) and bring Russia back into compliance with arms control agreements and international law. Finally, and perhaps most important, the framework for these policies must be articulated now, not in a time and place and crisis of our adversaries’ choosing.

Photo credit: MATTHIAS HANGST/Getty Images