Elephants in the Room

Trump’s Russia Policy Is Better Than Obama’s Was

The U.S. stance on Russia may have reached a post-Cold War high point.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s reported White House invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin has generated intense debate about the essence of U.S. Russia policy. For good reason: It’s painful to think back to the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, when candidate Trump insisted that Putin was a “strong leader.” Trump seemed to have an odd definition of leadership; the fact that Putin has invaded neighboring countries, jailed or exiled his political opponents, and extinguished media freedom in Russia did not seem to factor into his evaluation of the Kremlin strongman.

Simultaneously, as Trump was praising Putin, the Republican Party’s commitment to provide Ukraine with lethal military assistance mysteriously disappeared from its platform. Even more egregious was Trump’s explicit comparison of the United States to Russia. “You think our country’s so innocent?” he asked Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, drawing an unthinkable equivalence between the two countries’ governments and actions.

More than a year into Trump’s presidency, however, none of the fears generated by his early statements on Russia have become a reality. If you strip away his ostensibly chummy personal relationship with Putin, Trump’s Russia policy has been drastically more assertive than that of his predecessor. In 14 months, here is what his administration has done:

Authorized lethal military aid to Ukraine. While former President Barack Obama’s administration continuously rejected lethal weapons exports after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Trump is said to have personally approved the policy. Whether he told his staff to downplay the decision is immaterial. In fact, Trump has gone even further, selling Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. These moves could fundamentally change the balance of power on the ground. To be sure, Moscow retains substantial military advantages, but U.S.-made Javelins in Ukrainian hands will reduce the Kremlin’s incentive for large-scale hostilities.

Shuttered two Russian consulates, multiple diplomatic annexes, and expelled 60 diplomats. While Obama did shut down Russian government installations in Maryland and New York, Trump’s closure of consulates in Seattle and San Francisco and the expulsion of dozens of diplomats are unprecedented and important punitive measures.

Sanctioned Russian oligarchs and officials. This month, Trump sanctioned nearly 40 oligarchs, the businesses they own or control, and numerous Russian officials. Significantly, the administration justified its latest sanctions in uniquely broad terms, suggesting that future sanctions need not be tied to specific Russian actions.

Expanded the Magnitsky sanctions list. Trump could have easily refused to expand the Magnitsky sanctions, a list of corrupt Russian officials and human rights violators. Instead, he added names, including Chechen dictator and close Putin associate Ramzan Kadyrov and the son of Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika.

Forced the U.S.-based subsidiaries of Russian state-backed propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik to register as foreign agents. Despite Kremlin complaints, the Justice Department ordered RT America, RIA Global, Reston Translator, and T&R Productions to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. All are now required to disclose their finances and activities in the United States.

Targeted Russia with sanctions over North Korea, Iran, and Ukraine. The White House sanctioned additional Russian companies and individuals in connection with Moscow’s continued occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Those targeted included heavy hitters such as Russian Deputy Energy Minister Andrey Cherezov. The administration has also gone after entities known to aid the North Korean and Iranian ballistic missile and nuclear programs. 

More than tripled defense initiatives to deter Russian aggression in Europe. Trump’s 2018 budget request for the European Reassurance Initiative totaled nearly $4.8 billion. That’s $1.4 billion more than the Obama administration allocated for the 2017 fiscal year.

Formally blamed Russia for the NotPetya cyberattack last year. The virus, intended to disrupt the Ukrainian financial system, quickly spread to computers around the world including Denmark, India, and the United States. The Trump administration was unambiguous in its determination that the attack “was part of the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrates ever more clearly Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict.”

Killed or injured hundreds of Russian mercenaries and dozens of Russian troops in SyriaUnder the Obama administration, the United States was primarily interested in deconflicting with Russian operations in Syria, lest an incident occur. Now, U.S. military posture is less preoccupied with Russian actions. Instead, its attitude is that Putin should be the one on the defensive. The U.S. military’s looser rules of engagement and direct response to Russian forces in Syria have conveyed just that.

More than a year into his presidency, Trump’s Russia policy is far more forceful than that of his predecessor. It is substantive, antagonistic to Russian aims, and not at all to the Kremlin’s liking. Still, this fact has been buried by politics, optics, and the president’s own behavior. Some in the Russian government, however, continue to cling to the idea that Trump is on their side. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently voiced his own theory of the relationship. He explained in an interview with Russian newspaper Kommersant that Trump “knows perfectly that the Congress would make him [take action]. If the U.S. president refuses to do what the overwhelming majority of congressmen want, and there is such a majority, I say once again, his veto will be overcome.”

Lavrov is right that Congress supported and adopted many of the new Russia sanctions, and it deserves credit for those moves. This does not, however, negate the president’s own policy choices. Trump was not required to provide lethal military aid to Ukraine. He did not have to expand the Magnitsky list and could have made use of national security waivers to avoid adding new names. His Justice Department did not have to force RT to register as a foreign agent or cease its operations in the United States. He could have easily stayed quiet on Moscow’s poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain rather than crack down on Russia’s diplomatic presence in the United States.

After all this, if Lavrov still believes that Trump is eager to pursue some kind of detente with Russia, his denial borders on delusion. Trump’s Russia policy is his own. Either Lavrov is playing to a domestic audience and refusing to admit the Kremlin’s mistaken faith in Trump or getting played.

Trump’s policy toward the Kremlin should be evaluated on its merits. If you extract partisan politics and strip away justifiable distaste for his general conduct, what remains is arguably the most effective Russia policy since the end of the Cold War.

Daniel P. Vajdich is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former advisor to a number of Republican presidential candidates. @DanielVajdich

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