Will the Real Trump Russia Policy Please Stand Up?

Trump’s surprise White House invitation to Putin could undermine his administration’s tougher stance on Moscow.

US President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting on Nov. 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev /AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump chats with Russia's President Vladimir Putin as they attend the APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting on Nov. 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev /AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit the White House risks undercutting the administration’s embrace of a tougher Russia policy, or at least its apparent support for one of its closest allies.

On March 4, former Russian-turned-British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with nerve agents in Salisbury — an attack the British government, among others, believes Russia masterminded. On March 20, Trump called Putin and congratulated him on his re-election in a campaign widely criticized as neither free nor fair. Less than a week later, the United States joined over a dozen European countries in booting out Russian diplomats in response to the poisoning.

But it turns out that congratulatory phone call had another sweetener in it for Putin: an invitation to visit the White House. On Monday, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said Trump floated the idea of inviting Putin during that call — which came at the height of outrage among U.S. allies at the attempted killing on British soil. The White House since confirmed the (informal) invitation.

Which raises the questions: Why would Trump invite Putin to the White House now? And does the invitation threaten to undermine recent U.S. measures taken against the Kremlin?

“There’s only one word for this Trump invitation: bizarre,” the Atlantic Council’s Anders Aslund tells Foreign Policy. “Here he congratulates Putin on his so-called election, he does not protest or even mention the Salisbury poisoning, and he invites Putin to come. Clearly he is pursuing his own personal policy,” Aslund says.

Other experts stress the aggressive moves that the Trump administration has taken against Russia, from expelling diplomats and closing consulates to a new round of sanctions.

“While most people, including some Russians, are focused on atmospherics, we need to focus on what he and the administration as a whole is doing,” says Republican foreign-policy expert Dan Vajdich, also of the Atlantic Council. “Actions speak much louder than words and here we have to look at the Trump administration’s actions.”

World leaders meeting with much to discuss when diplomatic tensions are high isn’t necessarily bad, and Putin has not been to the White House since 2005. But as with Trump’s spur-of-the-moment decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a Putin meeting would require significant diplomatic groundwork to make it successful.

“It’s always good for the presidents to talk to each other, but the timing here seems very odd given the toughening of Trump administration policy toward Russia,” Timothy Frye, a political scientist focused on Russia at Columbia University tells FP, also noting that the timing makes efforts to isolate Putin seem weaker.

“There is certainly plenty of urgent business on the U.S.-Russia agenda, from nuclear risks to regional conflicts, but under the circumstances a lot more work still needs to be done to ensure that a summit meeting would be productive,” writes Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, in an email to FP.

For starters, Russia has not made much of an effort to implement or uphold the Minsk agreement to end fighting in eastern Ukraine; without that, the United States will not consider sanctions relief.

And the invitation could also threaten the trans-Atlantic unity seen in the wake of the U.K. poisonings, with a unilateral invitation potentially suggesting there’s more daylight between allies.

“It would be extremely important to coordinate any U.S. Russian meeting with our European allies to continue reinforcing that unity,” Rojansky writes.

The invitation is also just the latest example of the president seeming to be on a different page from the rest of the administration when it comes to Russia.

Trump rebuked then-national security advisor H.R. McMaster on Twitter in February after McMaster condemned Russia for election meddling before an international conference in Munich.

While the Trump administration sent lethal aid to Ukraine — which the Obama administration decidedly did not — Trump himself tweeted that having a good relationship with Putin could persuade Russia to help resolve the crisis in Ukraine, the country it invaded in 2014, the same year it annexed Crimea.

There’s also the issue of what might happen should the meeting actually take place. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Trump in the White House in May 2017, Trump allegedly shared Israeli intelligence with him. Aslund notes that Trump seems “excited” by the idea of meeting with Putin.

“We have two U.S. policies on Russia. One that President Trump pursues himself, and then the policy that the rest of the government pursues,” Aslund says. “This is as terrible as it can get.”

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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