Here’s How Trump Could Forge a Coherent Russia Strategy
In an attempt to learn the lessons of years past, we’ve selected five tidbits of advice.
On his 77th day in office, President Donald Trump changed his Russia policy. He may not have realized it as he gave the order that sent Tomahawk cruise missiles toward a Syrian airbase, but his decision to directly strike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime put him in direct conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to prop up the very same dictator. In the days that have followed, the administration has offered changing and even conflicting accounts of Russia’s complicity in Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. While Russia’s advanced knowledge of the chemical attack remains unclear, what is apparent now is that Trump appears willing to publicly criticize Russia, a departure from his previous position. But the White House is going to need something more than Trump’s tweet Thursday morning expressing hope that things between the United States and Russia will ultimately “work out fine.” The Trump administration desperately needs a strategy to deal with Russia.
Russia, specifically Putin, has been a thorn in the side of four successive U.S. presidents. As a consequence, many U.S. policymakers have found themselves tangling with Russian diplomats, intelligence operatives, and military leaders on a range of topics, often without much success. In an attempt to learn the lessons of years past, we’ve selected five tidbits of advice.
1. Conduct a Russia review and develop a strategy. Given the ad hoc and often contradictory way in which the Trump administration talks about Russia, it is obvious that the White House has yet to develop a clearly articulated strategy. If such an effort is not already underway, an interagency team should be tasked with a thorough analysis of the current state of the relationship, the past administration’s approach, and a list of options going forward. More specifically, the review should lead to a strategy that focuses on prospects for U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria, ways in which the administration — in working with European allies — can counter Russian aggression in its neighborhood, and incentives to get Russia to meet its Minsk protocol commitments in Ukraine. The National Security Council’s very capable senior director for Russia, Fiona Hill, would be the best person to lead such a review. No one knows Putin and Russia better.
2. Settle on a single message. Every administration must be, at times, reminded to coordinate its messaging and stick to the talking points. While some of the recent confusion makes sense because Trump’s team is still new and many senior leaders at the State Department and Department of Defense have yet to be nominated, mixed messages on Russia give Putin — who is a master of disinformation — the upper hand. The administration should settle on a handful of core messages about its views on Russia and Putin and repeat those messages as often as possible. Coordination with European allies on such points is critical.
3. Become familiar with the Russian way of communicating. Russia’s ability to fudge the truth, change the subject, ignore a topic, or flat-out lie should not be underestimated. For example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for a U.N. investigation into the Syrian chemical attack during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, even as the Russian mission to the U.N. was vetoing such a resolution. This is supremely frustrating. Get used to it. One way to fight back is to let the U.S. media question Russian untruths. This means making the media an integral part of any international trip conducted by senior administration officials. Loop in the media to your thinking and positions, and provide backgrounders and interviews. Let it call out the Russians when you can’t.
4. Know that Russian foreign policy runs together. Everything in Russian foreign policy is inextricably linked. Russia does not compartmentalize its issues. It ties Ukraine to Syria to Latin America to NATO to missile defense to nuclear weapons. This is very different from how the United States tends to handle foreign policy, which is to try to divide issues by regions and functions. This often leads to challenging discussions, since in Russia’s view, if the United States wants to truly cooperate, it must be willing to negotiate on the full slate of topics. In this context, Russia could offer concessions in Syria in return for U.S. concessions in Ukraine — a slippery slope that can incentivize bad Russian behavior elsewhere. The Trump administration has to avoid such tradeoffs and make sure that any cooperation in Syria will not translate into acquiescence on Ukraine.
5. Distrust and verify. When the mood strikes, Putin will sometimes agree to a compromise and commit to a new policy of cooperation. But as the West has witnessed time and time again, a promise from Putin doesn’t always translate into policy execution. (See the U.S. efforts to work with Russia on the Joint Implementation Center in Syria in late 2016.) In fact, the Russians use their lack of bureaucratic coordination to their advantage. It is not uncommon to get different answers to the same questions from different parts of the Russian government, leaving outsiders guessing as to what is really going on. If not managed through repeated verification with Russian officials and with folks on the ground, outsiders can be left confused and empty-handed.
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