- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Russia again is proving a divisive issue for NATO countries struggling to present a united front at the two-day leaders’ meeting that concludes Wednesday in London, as President Trump and fellow leaders sparred over how to confront Moscow’s recent moves.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin airing his own grievances over what he called the alliance’s aggressive expansion, NATO leaders appeared no closer Tuesday to resolving a bitter dispute over Turkey’s determination to deploy a Russian-made missile defense system that the Pentagon and other NATO country’s warn could undercut the alliance’s own systems.

After Mr. Trump expressed hope the issue could be worked out, an animated French President Emmanuel Macron lashed out at Ankara for proceeding with the deal.

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“Technically, it is not possible” for a member of the alliance “to work with our office, to buy our materials, to be integrated, and to buy the S-400 from Russians,” Mr. Macron said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that Moscow’s S-400 system “will not be integrated into the [NATO’s integrated defenses], because these Russian systems cannot work together with the rest of the NATO systems, of course.”

Russia was proving divisive on another front as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was reportedly holding up an alliance agreement to bolster defensive support for NATO’s Baltic states against Russia until fellow alliance members recognize a Syrian Kurdish militia group as a terrorist organization.

NATO-Russia ties have been in a deep freeze since Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and charges that Russia is pressuring Ukraine and other states along its border with Europe.

Meeting with military leaders in Sochi, Mr. Putin said Russia is willing to work with NATO, but still sees the organization’s support for Ukraine as a threat.

“Stereotypes” about Russian aggression are not helpful for “making effective decisions in the rapidly changing conditions of the modern world,” Mr. Putin said Tuesday.

“At the same time,’ he added, “we have repeatedly expressed our readiness to cooperate with NATO and to jointly withstand real threats, including, as we know, international terrorism, local armed conflicts, and the danger of uncontrolled proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

In Washington, lawmakers on Capitol Hill pressed State Department officials to explain President Trump’s policy toward Russia, even as the NATO leaders were gathering.

“It is still mystifying that President Trump refuses to stand up to [Russia‘s] behavior,” said New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“He has abdicated responsibility for defending this country from the threats posed by the Russian Federation. He is simply not interested,” the ranking member continued.

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale countered that, “under President Trump, the United States has taken consistent action against Moscow’s attempts to undermine American interests and those of our allies and partners around the world.”

Mr. Hale, a veteran diplomat who has testified before the House in the ongoing impeachment inquiry, pointed to Mr. Putin’s “aggressive foreign policy, which is driven, in part, by insecurity and fear of international change,” as a sign of weakness, not strength.

Committee Chairman James E. Risch, Idaho Republican, said the U.S.-Russian ties were at a “low point” for a variety of reasons, from Mr. Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule and Russia’s meddling in U.S. and European elections to the Kremlin’s support for separatist forces in Ukraine and U.S. foes such as Venezuela and Syria.

“Today, our engagements with Russia are few, and there is a growing risk of a strategic miscalculation on the seas, the ground, or in the skies,” Mr. Risch said.

President Trump has argued his military support for Ukraine and other front-line states in Easter Europe, along with energy policies threatening Russian oil and gas markets show his administration is not afraid to challenge Mr. Putin. But he said again this week he hoped for a more productive bilateral relationship.

“I think we get along with Russia. I think we could get along with Russia,” he said.

Mr. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Cold War-era INF nuclear arms pact in Russia, citing what he called Russian cheating, but insisted that Moscow has been pushing for a new arms control deal as recently as two weeks ago.

“But Russia wants to do something badly and so do we,” he said. “It would be a great thing to do.”

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