Trump’s Russian Problem

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

In two and a half years, Donald Trump and his national security team have managed to worsen virtually every aspect of American national security policy. Trump has bullied and harangued our traditional West European allies and, as a result, bilateral relations with Britain, France, and Germany have become more difficult. France, Germany, and even Japan have begun to rethink their security policies because of the uncertainty that surrounds dealing with the Trump administration. President Barack Obama left Trump a path for dealing with traditional foes in Cuba and Iran, but the president has made these issues far more problematic and, in the case of Tehran, raised the specter of confrontation. The most bizarre development has been the contradictory handling of the Russian problem, which finds Russian-American relations returning to a Cold War paradigm.

Trump campaigned on the basis of stabilizing and strengthening relations with Russia. Nevertheless, he appointed national security teams devoid of experience in conceptualizing and implementing diplomacy. General officers dominated his first national security team; key figures opposed to Russia and to arms control were appointed national security adviser, secretary of defense, and director of homeland security. Only former secretary of state Rex Tillerson had a resume that suggested an interest in a conciliatory relationship with Russia, but Trump and Tillerson were at odds from the start, and the role of the Department of State is severely limited in the Trump administration.

The second round of national security appointments produced greater mediocrity. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have no appreciation for the importance of diplomacy; they would have been far more comfortable in the Cold War era. Civilian leadership at the Pentagon has never been weaker, and whoever is in command will lead an organization that has never promoted better relations with Russia or the pursuit of arms control, which was central to creating stable bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s. The Trump administration, moreover, walked away from two seminal arms control agreements (e.g., the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Iran nuclear accord), and has no plans for pursuing disarmament.

Previously, President George W. Bush’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the cornerstone of strategic deterrence and the arms control relationship with Russia, was an example of the United States taking advantage of Moscow’s geostrategic weakness.  The ABM Treaty was abrogated to clear the way for a nationwide missile defense in California and Alaska as well as the deployment of a regional missile defense in Eastern Europe, which the Obama administration strengthened.  The Bush and Obama administrations justified the regional missile defense as needed against a possible attack from Iran, which made no sense, particularly in the wake of the Iranian nuclear accord that Russia fully supported.

Two recent developments reveal that Trump’s national security team never had an agenda for developing stable relations with Russia and that Trump never was the cat’s paw of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In remarks that attracted little attention, Trump used the occasion of the state visit of Polish President Andrzej Duda to promote the construction of a “world-class” military base in Poland. Trump implied that U.S. forces would be drawn down in Germany to staff the base in Poland, which serves his twin purposes of weakening ties to Germany as well as building stronger ties to authoritarian leaders in East Europe. Previously, Duda had talked of Poland paying for construction of a “Fort Trump” in Poland. It is hard to imagine a more bellicose signal to Putin than the idea of a U.S. military base in Poland.

Any U.S. base in Poland, let alone a “world-class” base,” would be one more repudiation of the commitment that President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker gave to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, respectively, to not “leapfrog” over East Germany to assert itself in East Europe if the Soviets pulled their 400,000 military forces out of East Germany. The efforts of President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to expand NATO was strategically flawed in the first place; from the Kremlin’s point of view, it was a repudiation of those verbal guarantees.

The Bush administration was even flirting with NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, until German Chancellor Angela Merkel convinced President Bush that such a move would violate a “red line” that Putin had established.  Washington’s manipulation of relations with Georgia had a great deal to do with the short war fought between Russia and Georgia in the summer of 2008. Washington’s manipulation of the political situation in Ukraine in 2013-2014 had a great deal to do with Putin’s interference in the U.S. presidential election of 2016 to assure the defeat of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

The second setback to Russian-American relations was the U.S. decision to leak information regarding the deployment of an American computer code inside Russia’s electric power grid, which escalates the current Cold War environment. This development is particularly bizarre because Trump reportedly had not been briefed in any detail about placing software codes inside the Russian grid for surveillance or possible attack. This information, reported in the New York Times, signals to Putin the weakness of the American president and the anti-Russian orientation of Trump’s national security team. Thus far, Trump has been unwillingness to respond to Putin’s efforts to begin a dialogue on malicious cyber activities.

President Trump is missing an opportunity to move Russian-American relations off of dead center.  The Obama administration had promised a “reset” in relations with Russia but there was no effort to institutionalize bilateral relations and, in a visit to Poland in 2011, President Obama announced the first steps in basing U.S. fighter aircraft in Poland, one more “leapfrog” measure.  Obama also unnecessarily personalized the confrontation with Putin, and allowed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to stop high-level discussions between the Department of Defense and the Russian Defense Ministry. Hillary Clinton’s misleading remarks to Putin about the U.S. role in Libya in 2011 also angered Putin. If we are going to expect more conciliatory behavior from Putin, we are going to have to moderate our own actions as well.

Ironically, there are many areas of mutual interest between Washington and Moscow that could lead to diplomatic and political coordination, including strategic disarmament, nuclear proliferation, and international terrorism, particularly in the wake of successful Russian-American cooperation on the Iran nuclear agreement.  Any cooperative arrangement dealing with the North Korea nuclear program would be facilitated by having Washington and Moscow on the same page. There are already indications that Putin is willing to work with the United States on issues dealing with the Middle East, including Syria, as well as in Central Europe, where Russian and American military moves have created tensions in the European theatre.  Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman have even referred to the need for a “reset” with NATO, particularly the need for normal relations.  Any “reset” would require a sophisticated diplomatic intervention, but Trump and his national security team are not up to the task.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for