Shadow Government

Trump Still Doesn’t Take Russia Seriously

Rather than speaking out against Putin, the U.S. president is playing into Moscow’s hands.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, 2017. (Jorge Silva/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, 2017. (Jorge Silva/Getty Images)

In the immediate aftermath of the poisoning by nerve agent of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, last month, for which Britain and its allies blamed Russia, U.S. President Donald Trump remained conspicuously quiet. Shortly thereafter, as the Kremlin reported that the U.S. president had invited his Russian counterpart to Washington, confusion grew. The United States was effectively inviting the neighborhood brutalizer (don’t forget the ongoing bombing of innocent civilians in Syria) over for coffee the day after he attacked its best friend.

Trump did eventually order the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle and the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats over the incident. But during a meeting with U.S. Baltic allies to mark the nations’ 100 years since independence from the Russian Empire, he continued to assert his belief that cooperation with Russia would be desirable. Meanwhile, Russia was preparing an unnecessarily disruptive missile test over the Baltic Sea, which necessitated the closure of Latvian airspace. The president did not stick up for the United States’ NATO allies and protest what Latvia’s prime minister labeled a “demonstration of force.”

As a matter of national security, Trump must speak clearly about why and how Russia is a threat. If enough of the U.S. population remains willfully ignorant of the danger, Congress and civil society will fail to take sufficient action, perhaps even boosting Kremlin operations rather than blocking them. In this scenario, if the Kremlin is the terrorist organization with a suitcase bomb, the United States is the passenger who thinks nothing of the unattended luggage idling on the metro platform.

True, the administration has finally imposed significant sanctions against Russia, as mandated by Congress last year, and Trump has struck out against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s complicity in chemical attacks against Syrian civilians. But this unfolded in the context of what appears to be presidential ambivalence about the Russia threat.

Americans should be shocked by Trump’s attempts to dismiss Putin’s perfidy and play into the hands of U.S. adversaries in the Kremlin. The Russian government wants nothing more than for the United States to ignore Moscow’s disregard for international rules and move on — to cooperate, work together, drop sanctions, and accept the occupations of Georgia and Ukraine. And Trump’s deliberate silence makes it potentially politically possible for him to do all of this. His public stance on Russia bolsters the country’s strategy of plausible deniability.

The Russians rely on plausible deniability each time they do things like shoot down a civilian airliner, killing more than 200 people; poison Kremlin enemies; and steal data from U.S. political parties and then transmit some of it to associates for publication. The deniability makes it harder, even for the motivated, to respond to the offensive acts. And it allows the unmotivated to pretend Russia’s innocence or to blame others.

When Trump says nothing while his government takes concerted action against the Kremlin, he is also, in a sense, plausibly denying that he supports punishing Putin. He keeps alive the idea that the United States can and should cooperate with Russia without conditions and thereby permits the portion of Americans who constitute his base to ignore the threat Russia poses.

Given the hold Trump has on his base, his stance has also allowed average Americans without interest in obtaining another perspective the ability to live in relative ignorance of the Russia threat. This is dangerous, given the fact that the Russian government is still using social media, money, and business deals to forge useful ties with banks, real estate, think tanks, academics, and organizations such as the National Rifle Association. It is using those ties, as well as cybercriminals and information operations, to spread fake news stories that pit Americans against Americans, spread the Russian talking points, and make U.S. democracy weak and vulnerable to Russian influence, along with political and even military operations.

Any other U.S. president would have long ago given a speech denouncing the Russian government for trying to rewrite the rules of the international order to reassert the old balance of power, called out Putin for his desire to replace international institutions and international law with 19th-century great-power politics, and criticized the Russian president for trying to force his corrupt, autocratic system on neighboring states. Another president would have repudiated a world vision where autocrats abuse their citizens with genocide, chemical weapons, or persecution without fear of international accountability. In order for Putin to achieve his objective — a restored Eurasian sphere of influence for Russia — Putin must have U.S. acquiescence.

The United States is still the strongest economic, military, and diplomatic force in the world. It is still the only country that can counter Russia alone. But it is also perhaps the only country with the power and influence to gather allies and partners from all over the world to act in unison. Indeed, those countries are motivated by their understanding that the current international order forged at the end of World War II serves their interests and that of global peace and prosperity.

Americans need to hear Trump lay out exactly what Russia has done to achieve its objectives: invade and occupy its neighbors, conduct cyberoperations, spread fake news stories through social media on the internet and through its propaganda networks (RT and Sputnik), violate nuclear and conventional arms control agreements, weaponize its near monopoly on energy resources (especially in Europe), pay far-left and far-right political parties to create dissent and increase support for Russia, manipulate refugee flows to destabilize governments, intimidate diplomats and military personnel with saber-rattling and dangerous military flights over ships and foreign aircraft, penetrate the energy grids and other infrastructure, and conduct operations to intimidate local and national officials. This litany of offenses is by no means complete.

Finally, the United States must be clear about what to do, and then must do it, alongside allies, partners, and friends — not just Europe. The country must increase its cyberdefenses — in election systems and in critical infrastructure for starters. Americans must increase their media literacy and push for transparency of paid advertising. The public must hold social media platforms accountable through regulations ensuring they are no longer used as a vehicle for attacks against the citizens of the United States and other democracies. The United States should pass stronger laws and improve enforcement to address foreign agent activities, corruption, and money laundering. And the country should address its economic and social weaknesses and inequalities, including the legacy of slavery and ongoing racism.

Above all, because the United States cannot predict Russia’s next wave of tactics in its war on democracy, Americans must practice vigilance.

Evelyn N. Farkas, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia from 2012 to 2015.

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