- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In response to Democrats’ charges of Trump treason at the Helsinki summit, conservative research groups have documented a series of the president’s anti-Russia moves both economically and on the battlefield the past two years.

The groups say President Trump has been tougher on Vladimir Putin than predecessor Barack Obama, who, along with his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, defended the Russian president during the “reset” era.

One example: Earlier this year, Mr. Trump’s Treasury Department used its toughest language yet, portraying Mr. Putin’s government as corrupt at home and aboard. The department unleashed economic sanctions at the heart of Mr. Putin’s close circle of oligarchs, including his former son-in-law.

Mr. Obama did turn on Mr. Putin after his 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Republicans say Mr. Obama had sent the autocratic leader too many “green lights,” such as mocking Mitt Romney in 2012 for calling Russia the U.S.’s No. 1 strategic threat.

Mr. Trump has a record of imposing pocketbook penalties on Putin-connected elites, while also sparring with Moscow on the battlefield. He twice has ordered the bombing of chemical weapons owned by Putin ally Bashar Assad of Syria.

Mr. Obama threatened air strikes on President Assad’s military, but backed off in September 2013 after Mr. Putin interceded and offered a deal: remove Assad’s chemical weapons instead.

Last May, Ukraine began receiving U.S. state-of-the-art Javelin anti-tank missiles. Mr. Obama had resisted providing lethal aid in Kiev’s war against Putin-backed separatists.

The Security Studies Group, a conservative think tank, this week issued a list of Mr. Trump’s moves.

In September 2017, the administration banned the use of Kaspersky Labs software by the U.S. government because of ties to Russian intelligence.

Two months later, the administration put export controls on two Russian companies developing missiles that violated the INF treaty.

Last March, the U.S. ordered the expulsion of 48 Russian intelligence officers and closed a Russian consulate in Seattle. It also put added to the sanctions list, targeting 16 Russian groups or individuals for interference in the 2016 election. Sanctions typically reduce a person’s ability to do business, by restricting travel and banking.

The next month, more sanctions came, this time against seven Russian oligarchs and 12 companies they control, plus 17 senior Russian officials, and a state-downed weapons trader.

In June came more sanctions. The targets this time were five Russian groups and three Russians that enabled Moscow to improve offensive cyber strikes.

All the while, Mr. Trump has kept Mr. Obama’s post-election-interference punishments: the closure of two Russian compounds and explosion of 35 diplomats in response to Russians hacking Democratic Party computers.

The April announcement from Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets came with tough anti-Russia rhetoric from Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin.

“The Russian government operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites,” Mr. Mnuchin said. “The Russian government engages in a range of malign activity around the globe, including continuing to occupy Crimea and instigate violence in eastern Ukraine, supplying the Assad regime with material and weaponry as they bomb their own civilians, attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities. Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities.”

Treasury criticized the seven targeted oligarchs tied to Mr. Putin, including his ex-son-in law, Kirill Shamalov, who married one of his daughters in 2013.

The Russian president practiced rank cronyism. Treasury said of Mr. Shamalov, “his fortunes drastically improving following the marriage.”

He acquired a large interest in Sibur, a petrochemical company, and then was allowed to borrow $1 billion from the state-downed utility Gazprombank.

“Shortly thereafter, Kirill Shamalov joined the ranks of the billionaire elite around Putin,” Treasury said.

Luke Coffey, a foreign affairs scholar at the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Trump has made a number of pro-Western defense moves to counter Mr. Putin.

Mr. Coffey said the president has increased U.S. spending in Europe by 40 percent above Mr. Obama’s level. Mr. Trump set a pro-West tone by traveling to Poland in July 2017 and delivering a speech committing the U.S. to NATO’s security.

Strategically, countries hard-pressed by Mr. Putin’s destabilization efforts have received direct lethal aid. Georgia, as well as Ukraine, will receive anti-tank missiles. Georgia can also buy Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

In all, Mr. Trump has sanctioned-target nearly 200 Russian oligarchs, government officials and organizations.

Mr. Coffey said that Mr. Trump’s criticism of Germany for gambling its energy future on Mr. Putin and the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline is “not exactly a ‘weak on Russia‘ position.”

“In my opinion Trump went into the Helsinki meeting with a strong hand to play. He just failed to deliver it,” Mr. Coffey told The Washington Times.

On the eve of the July 16 summit, Mr. Coffey asserted: “Putin has not been good for Russia. To distract his people from their many woes, he has pursued a dangerously aggressive and expansionist foreign policy ….. At the summit in Helsinki, President Trump should reiterate U.S. commitment to Europe, and be clear about which behaviors are unacceptable.”

Mr. Trump admittedly flubbed his answer to summit press conference question on whether he believes Russia hacked Democratic Party computers.

His answer seemed to exonerate Mr. Putin, touching off waves of criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. Mr. Trump later attempted to clean up his answer by saying he does in fact believe Russia interfered, and that he told Mr. Putin privately that the computer hacking by Russian intelligence officers must stop.


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