For 18 months, the Trump administration has taken numerous firm actions against the Kremlin, and foreign policy analysts say President Trump’s charm offensive toward Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday shouldn’t overshadow that.
Hundreds of Russian businesses, power brokers and influential oligarchs remain under tough U.S. economic sanctions, and the administration is considering even harsher penalties against Russian officials if Moscow moves ahead with its controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which would funnel Russian natural gas through the Baltic Sea to Germany.
“Trump has done some really provocative things. He sent dozens of diplomats back. He’s attacked into Syria. He’s sent anti-tank missiles to eastern Ukraine, very much against [Russia’s] interests,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, a Washington foreign policy think tank.
“We spend way too much time focusing on personality and style over substance and actual policy,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s fair game to criticize the president, like many of us did with [former President Barack] Obama. But you still have to focus on the policy.”
In addition to the host of economic sanctions and expulsion of diplomats, the Trump administration also has embraced direct military assistance to Russia’s adversaries in a way the Obama administration did not.
Earlier this year, for example, the U.S. confirmed it had completed its first delivery of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, which remains on edge and fearful of further Russian aggression after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and ongoing assistance to pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The Javelins went through after Mr. Trump had separately approved the sale of another batch of the anti-tank missiles to Georgia, another former Soviet republic that faced its own military showdown with Russia a decade ago.
While the administration is taking clear actions to counter Moscow, however, some regional experts argue Mr. Trump is simultaneously engaged in a careful strategic dance to decouple Russia from China, which the White House sees as the more serious long-term threat to the U.S.
Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The Washington Times on Tuesday that “Mr. Trump is trying to reach out to Mr. Putin and trying to detach Russia from China because he sees China as our principal competitor, both strategically and economically.”
‘Italy with nukes’
With the prospect of a wider strategy to counter China as a backdrop, some analysts argue that it is simply wrong to view the Helsinki summit as a capitulation by the president to a major foreign rival — since Russia can hardly be described as an equal foe to the United States.
“People are too caught up and still locked in Cold War thinking,” said Col. Davis, the Defense Priorities scholar. “You say ‘Russia,’ and that’s synonymous in their minds with the Soviet Union and the juggernaut of the Warsaw Pact. That’s not what exists any more.”
“Russia has the same economy as Italy. It’s like Italy with nukes,” he added. “We don’t give that much notice to Italy … for economic reasons. The same thing needs to be true with Russia.”
The White House, meanwhile, moved Tuesday to quell the furor over Mr. Trump’s performance in Helsinki, with the president himself walking back some the comments he’d made while standing alongside Mr. Putin a day earlier in the Finnish capital.
Mr. Trump faced particular criticism for openly questioning whether Moscow interfered in U.S. elections, and for seeming to take Mr. Putin’s word on the matter over that America’s own intelligence services.
Within 24 hours, Mr. Trump had changed course. “Let me be very clear in saying I accept our intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential race took place,” he told reporters Tuesday at the White House.
Shortly afterwards, the White House released a fact sheet highlighting its tough stance against Russia. The materials underscored efforts to protect upcoming elections from Russian interference; the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers and diplomats from the U.S. following a chemical weapons attack in the Britain; the economic sanctions levied on hundreds of Russian individuals and businesses; and Washington’s support for Ukraine and key NATO allies.
Furthermore, the U.S. military last month conducted its annual Saber Strike exercise in eastern Poland, in conjunction with the militaries of the Britain, Croatia and Romania. The joint drills, one of the largest in the region, are designed to foster military cooperation between nations and to demonstrate to Moscow that there’s a strong U.S. deterrence force in northeastern Poland.
Foreign policy specialists said Tuesday’s rhetorical 180 by the president could best be explained by the reality that he sometimes allows himself to be reined in by his own advisors, and that he often personally approaches the U.S.-Russia relationship in fashion starkly different from that traditional Washington establishment thinking.
“I think there’s a Trump-Russia and there’s a United States-Russia policy,” said Mr. Cohen. “I hate to say that, but they’re not necessarily the same.”
“The United States-Russia policy is that Russia acted illegitimately and illegally in terms of international law by attacking Ukraine, annexing Crimea, hacking the elections, by supporting [Syrian dictator Bashar] Assad,” he added. “If you go five layers down … you pretty much will find consensus, 90 percent, that we need to be wary of Russia.”
Russian power or weakness
There are signs Mr. Trump is well aware of the consensus on Russia, but also sensitive to the prospect that Moscow’s power on the global stage could be far smaller than it may appear.
During last week’s NATO summit in Brussels, the president harshly criticized the Russia’s proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, saying it would increase European dependence on Russian fuel, put Ukraine and other countries in danger of being cut off from Russian supplies, and strengthen ties between Berlin and Moscow.
Mr. Putin’s use of energy as a geopolitical weapon is nothing new, specialists say, and Moscow increasingly over the past several years has tried to sow international discord as a way to both make itself appear more economically powerful and influential on the world stage, and to drive up oil prices.
Oil and gas account for nearly 40 percent of the Russian government’s revenue, and maintaining relatively high, stable oil prices and striking new energy deals — such as Nord Stream — remain central to the Kremlin’s strategy.
Sinking oil prices and an absence of new customers for its energy would be economically disastrous for Russia, which currently boasts a GDP closer to that of Canada or South Korea than major global economic leaders such as the U.S. and China.
The U.S. in 2017 had a GDP of $19.4 trillion, while China’s was $12.2 trillion, according to figures from the World Bank. Russia clocked in at $1.6 trillion — No. 11 in the global rankings behind the U.S., China, Japan, Germany, Britain, India, France, Brazil, Italy and Canada.
Mr. Cohen argued Tuesday that if oil prices were under about $50 per barrel, Russia’s GDP could sink as low as about $1.25 trillion. But if oil were to shoot up to about $100 per barrel, he said, Russia’s GDP could creep closer to $2 trillion.
With that in mind, Moscow is seen to be increasingly working with Saudi Arabia and other leading OPEC countries in an effort to keep global oil prices stable and protect its own GDP, underscoring how oil and gas — one of the few Russian-made products in high demand — remain central to Moscow’s ability to remain relevant economically.
“You will not buy a Russian car, a Russian suit, a Russian X-ray machine. They have no sources of high-tech growth,” Mr. Cohen said.