The Myth of Trump’s ‘Soft’ Russia Policy

This article appeared on Washington Examiner on August 23, 2018.
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There is little doubt that the Russian government tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election to boost Donald Trump's prospects. It was hardly surprising that Moscow would pursue such an objective. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly advocated a more conciliatory U.S. policy toward Russia, raising hopes in the Kremlin that the poisonous bilateral relationship during the final years of Barack Obama's administration could be reversed. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, favored a hardline policy toward Russia and openly compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler.

If Putin and his colleagues believed that with Trump's election, their exertions were rewarded, and that the new U.S. president would adopt a much friendlier approach to Russia, they must be extremely disappointed right now.

Manifestations of a softer policy have been confined to rhetoric. This verbal aspect was on display again at the July Helsinki summit, where Trump was so effusive in his comments toward his Russian counterpart that the president's domestic critics responded with vitriolic accusations of treason. In terms of actual policy, though, the Trump administration is at least as uncompromising and confrontational as its predecessor.

On two separate occasions, the president ordered large-scale expulsions of Russian diplomats stationed in the United States. In August 2017, the administration closed three Russian diplomatic facilities after Russia ousted several hundred U.S. diplomats in response to Congress imposing new economic sanctions. The following May, the White House expelled 60 diplomats and ordered the Seattle consulate closed as punishment for the Kremlin's alleged involvement in two nerve-agent poisoning incidents in Britain.

Although the president expressed some criticism of the economic sanctions, he has implemented them in spite of the grumbling. Moreover, following the nerve agent accusations, the White House slapped additional sanctions of its own on Moscow. Such actions are hardly consistent with a soft or appeasement policy toward Russia.

Trump's behavior toward Moscow's Syrian client, Bashar Assad, also does not suggest excessive respect for Russia's interests or wishes. Not only has the White House twice ordered air and missile strikes on Syrian government facilities for Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, but the United States conducted air-support operations to protect rebel forces seeking to overthrow the Syrian government. At least one of those campaigns reportedly killed as many as 200 Russian military personnel.

The administration's continuation of a less-than-friendly approach is also evident in NATO policy. Trump did not scuttle the membership invitation to Montenegro, even though Russia expressed strong objections not only to the addition of that country, but any manifestation of NATO expansion. More recently, the administration is increasingly receptive to adding Montenegro to the alliance, despite Russian opposition.

In addition to endorsing NATO enlargement, the Trump administration has approved the participation of U.S. forces in alliance military exercises (war games) in Eastern Europe, including Poland and other member states, as well as naval maneuvers in the Black Sea near Russia's naval base at Sevastopol. Washington has even sent U.S. troops as participants in NATO's joint military exercises with Ukrainian forces  — an act that Moscow considers especially provocative, given its tense relations with Kiev.

The Trump administration's military collaboration with Ukraine is not confined to involvement in such exercises. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis acknowledges that U.S. instructors are busy training Ukrainian military units at a base in western Ukraine. Perhaps even more provocative, Washington has approved two major arms sales to Kiev in just the past eight months. The first transaction in December 2017 involved only $41.5 million in small arms that at least could be portrayed as purely defensive weapons.

The more recent sale in May 2018 was another matter. It was much larger ($47 million) and it included far more lethal weaponry, especially 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles. Needless to say, the Kremlin was not pleased about either sale.

At this point, Putin and his colleagues must be wondering about the wisdom of having tried to get a friendlier U.S. president elected in 2016. Moscow's efforts have triggered a storm of protests in the United States, even though the impact of the campaign appears to have been meager. And although Trump has talked a good game, making all of the soothing rhetorical assurances of wanting cordial bilateral relations, his actions have differed little from those of the previous administration. Indeed, in one respect (the arms sales to Kiev), Trump has adopted measures that Obama avoided.

If Putin truly did meddle in America's politics, he has reason to be profoundly disappointed at the results. Washington's policy toward Russia remains as hardline and uncompromising as ever.

Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 10 books, the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 700 articles on international affairs.