Russia’s Return on Its Investment in Trump Has Been Huge
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Washington may as well be a victory lap: U.S. foreign policy is serving Moscow’s interests now
From a national security standpoint, the most important question about Vladimir Putin’s big 2016 investment in Donald Trump has always been about whether Russia would eventually get something significant in return for helping elect the U.S. president. Surveying President Trump’s actions over the past year, the answer appears to be that Putin is in the process of getting quite a lot from the United States, perhaps more than he could have ever imagined.
Not only has the United States taken very pro-Putin stances in Russia’s hot wars in Ukraine and Syria, but on a grander scale Trump has helped convey U.S. weakness and Russian strength in region after region across the world — a dangerous development which is going to create enormous challenges for the United States and the West for years to come.
With Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visiting Washington this week, it’s worth diving a little deeper into just how much Trump has tried to align the United States with Russian interests over the past year:
Trump has been working hard to unilaterally withdraw the United States from Syria, a country where Russia has a naval base and has been fighting on the government’s behalf since September 2015. Trump’s unexpected and abrupt withdrawal announcement a year ago caused Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign in protest, and his recent sudden second attempt at complete withdrawal has been met with extraordinary alarm in Washington, Europe, and even Israel. Without consulting our allies or Congress, the president pulled U.S. forces from the front lines of battle in northern Syria, abandoning our long time allies the Kurds, and in effect turning over the country back to the murderous Syrian government and its allies the Russians without the United States or the West getting anything in return. It was a hasty and sudden retreat, pure and simple, and sent a very strong signal across the globe about how feckless and unreliable America has become.
In May, shortly after talking to Vladimir Putin on the phone, the president again without warning or consultation with allies, publicly abandoned a months-long U.S.-led international effort to rid Venezuela of its corrupt leader, Nicolas Maduro, allowing him to stay essentially under Russia’s protection. In his statement announcing the decision, the president contradicted comments his own secretary of state had made just days before warning that Russia was in the process of invading and taking over Venezuela. It was a shocking reversal. Hopes of a restoration of democracy were dashed, and like in Syria, the president appears to have willingly allowed the country to become a Russian client state without getting anything for the United States in return. I spoke to a friend with family in Caracas this week, and he said Russian troops are now a common sight throughout the country.
In his infamous July 25 phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump asked for help in removing the blame for the 2016 attack on U.S. elections from Russia and instead tried to place it on Ukraine itself. I’m not really sure that we’ve collectively processed here the gravity of what Trump asked of Zelensky that day — it was essentially a request for him to commit national and political suicide, and made it very very clear that regardless of where the U.S. government stood, Trump himself was with Russia.
Again and again the president has conveyed his sympathy toward Russia in this hot war, including when he ominously turned the August G7 meeting into a discussion about removing the sanctions from Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea. Rudy Giuliani’s return to Ukraine last week should be read as a very public show of Trump’s contempt for Zelensky. It comes days before the Ukrainian president’s face to face peace talks with Putin that start Monday in Paris, a gathering where the United States is conspicuously absent.
At some point Trump was going to have to choose between his Gulf Arab and Israeli friends and the Russia-Iran-Assad axis. In recent months, it seems as if the president has finally chosen Putin over his allies. In September, the president signaled a desire to negotiate easing back on sanctions with Iran, backing off his hard line position. The United States did little to respond to Iran’s attack on Saudi oil facilities, and Russia’s perceived victory in Syria was a huge win for Iran as well. Experts in the region say the president’s recent dramatic reorientation toward Russian objectives there even has Israel wondering if it can continue to count on the United States in its struggle with Iran. The president’s embrace of Russian objectives in Syria cost him Mattis. His embrace of Russian objectives with Iran might have cost him John Bolton.
Within the span of a few weeks, we have witnessed Western leaders mocking the U.S. president at a NATO meeting and Trump cutting short his trip to NATO as if it was a bother to him. Trump once again expressed doubts about his willingness to defend others in the alliance and also delivered a potentially crippling blow to the World Trade Organization, a key pillar of the U.S.-led post WWII liberal order. The president has backed Brexit and the fracturing of the European project, embraced far-right, pro-Putin, anti-European leaders like Hungary’s Orban, has walked away from a critical nuclear arms control treaty with Russia that directly affects European security, denigrated NATO, and weakened the global trading system. The Western alliance that won the Cold War, caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, and kept the United States safe, is under extraordinary strain. Of all of his gifts to Putin in recent months this one may be the most significant, and the most dangerous for the United States itself.
While there were moments in 2017 and 2018 where one wondered whether Trump was rewarding Putin (Helsinki being a good example), much of the truly significant aligning of U.S. policy toward Russian interests has come in the last year. While we may never know why, I want to offer an explanation: Trump’s drubbing in the 2018 election. Putin may have understood at that point that Trump had an expiration date, and needed to get from him what he could while he was still in office.
It is also long past time for leaders of both parties to challenge the president’s alignment with Russia far more forcefully.
The way Trump has prosecuted these policies has in every case seemed rushed, reckless, and sudden — as if there was pressure on him to deliver, and he just didn’t have time to prepare or soften the ground for the decisions. The Ukraine affair has appeared particularly wild and sloppy — and has continued this week, with Guiliani returning to Ukraine in a manner that seems reckless to an extreme.
Whatever the explanation for what we’ve seen, in the past year Trump has fundamentally altered core security arrangements throughout the world in ways which have benefited Russia and harmed western and U.S. interests. It is time for U.S. policymakers to come to a clearer understanding of the damage the president has done to our standing in the world and our security by these actions, which is why I have called for the House to conduct a broad security review next year as part of impeachment. It is also long past time for leaders of both parties to challenge the president’s alignment with Russia far more forcefully — it has become a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States.