- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2017

Current and former national security leaders and U.S. diplomats took to the airwaves Sunday to articulate the threat posed by Russia to American interests — and how the Trump administration plans to respond.

Moscow’s aggressive actions in eastern Europe, as well as its overt efforts to prop up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad continue to roil U.S. national security officials, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Sunday.

But the administration, she said, is trying to implement a foreign policy that sees Russia as a critical ally in the fight against the Islamic State and as a bulwark against an increasingly belligerent North Korea and its Chinese overlords.

“We beat up on [Russia] because we thought that what they did with Crimea and what’s happening in Ukraine is wrong. And we called them out for it. And … they are not being helpful in the way that they and Iran are covering up for Assad,” Mrs. Haley said during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”

That said, the Trump White House “needs [Russia‘s] pressure when it comes to dealing with ISIS, and we also need their pressure when it comes to dealing with China and North Korea,” the former South Caroline governor said, articulating the delicate balance American diplomats are attempting to strike in its dealings with Moscow.

Achieving that balance has become even more difficult in recent weeks, as the Trump White House continues to face increasing political pressure over its reported close ties to the Kremlin.

FBI Director James Comey testified last month that there is an ongoing investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign are linked to Russia‘s interference in the election.

The Wall St. Journal reported Thursday that former national security adviser Michael Flynn is willing to testify before Congress — if he is given immunity from federal prosecution. Mr. Flynn was forced to step down in November, after admitting to lying about conversations he had with Russian officials prior to President Trump taking office.

For her part, Mrs. Haley said there was no doubt that Russia actively interfered with the U.S. presidential election. But she noted that congressional lawmakers need time to finish their ongoing inquiries into Moscow’s actions before the White House can appropriately respond.

“We don’t want any country involved in our elections ever. And so once that information comes out, I expect that that will be handled accordingly,” Mrs. Haley said.

But the administration’s inability or unwillingness to address its alleged ties to the Kremlin will continue to weaken the United States’ position on the world stage, at a time when American adversaries are looking to take advantage of the domestic political tumult inside Washington, says one former senior Pentagon official.

“There does need to be clarity and consistency. And with respect to the Russians, they need to hear that from the United States,” former Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Sunday.

Since the end of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow have been able to cooperate on interests across the globe — but those joint efforts have become increasingly strained under President Vladimir Putin, Mr. Carter said during an interview with ABC.

“That alignment has become more and more difficult under Putin. You see that in Ukraine, you see it in the Middle East. To an extent where he actually defines Russian success as thwarting the United States,” he said.

In the Mideast specifically, Russian pressure to keep the Assad regime in power has now gained a foothold inside the White House.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday that the fate of the Assad regime will be up to the people of Syria, a significant shift from the Obama administration’s stance that an Assad regime must not be part of a postwar Syria.

Mrs. Haley pushed back on that assertion Sunday, saying the Assad regime cannot be allowed to retain power in Syria and accountable for the human rights violations committed by regime forces in Syria’s six-year war.

“Our goal is we want to bring Assad to justice. We want them to pay for the crimes that he’s done. We’re going to continue to let Russia know how dangerous it is to keep Assad in power,” she said. Those efforts are not mutually exclusive to Washington’s efforts to lead the international coalition battling Islamic State in the country.

“You don’t have to have one or the other,” she said.

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