President Trump has stated regularly that he will conduct national security policy from a position of strength. As part of this effort he has vowed to increase defense spending, sounded the alarm on China’s expansive aims in the South and East China Seas, and placed new sanctions on Iran in the wake of its ballistic missile tests.
Yet there has been one curious exception to his tough-nosed approach to foreign policy. During the campaign and afterward he has spoken favorably about Russian President Vladimir Putin, called for improving relations with Russia, and even talked about offering a gift—the lifting of the sanctions imposed on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and ongoing war in Ukraine.
The White House’s ardent effort to woo the Kremlin stands out, too, because of its sharp contrast with the sober views of the Administration’s chief national security officials. Secretary of Defense James Mattis declared that Russia is the principal national security danger to the United States at the moment. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson castigated Moscow for its aggression in Ukraine and said that we should have provided weapons to help Kyiv defend itself. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley likewise portrayed Kremlin ambitions in Europe and the Middle East as dangerous to our interests.
President Trump’s soft approach to Moscow may have already had unfortunate real world consequences, by permitting, if not encouraging, the Kremlin to maintain or even escalate its aggression in Ukraine. The first example came during the campaign. Western sanctions on Russia had not persuaded Moscow to cease its Ukrainian intervention, but they had imposed a significant cost—a 1-1.5 percent drop in Russian Gross National Product in 2015. The impact of sanctions prompted Moscow in January of 2016 to open an unusual channel on Ukraine involving senior Kremlin aide Vyacheslav Surkov and then-State Department Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland, in order to discuss serious steps for ending Moscow’s war on Ukraine on an equitable basis. This promising channel stalled in early summer as Mr. Trump emerged as the likely Republican nominee. Shortly after Trump’s electoral victory, the respected Russian commentator Dmitri Trenin, a reliable weathervane of prevailing moods in Moscow, laid out a vision for ending the war in Ukraine that showed no hint of Russian compromise.
More immediately, as a sweetener for the January 28 telephone call between Presidents Trump and Putin, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway suggested on January 27 that the Administration was going to reconsider the economic sanctions levied on Russia. Shortly after the Trump-Putin phone call, Moscow and its surrogates greatly escalated military operations in Ukraine’s east. In addition, Russian forces on oil rigs in the Black Sea that had been seized from Ukraine fired on a Ukrainian military aircraft.
While concerned about the uptick in violence, the White House and the State Department hesitated to blame the Russian aggressors. Only on February 2, more than three days after the escalation began, did U.N Ambassador Haley slam the Kremlin’s behavior. That same day, the courageous Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza was apparently poisoned again. As of this writing, there has been no statement by the White House on that poisoning.
Moscow’s increased military activities in the Donbas region of Ukraine this past week were a test of the new Administration. In response, President Trump told Fox News that he was not embarrassed by the fact that the Russian offensive began a day after his conversation with Putin, and even questioned whether Moscow was responsible for the violence. Vice President Pence spoke of lifting the sanctions, without referring to Ukraine, while the fighting in Ukraine’s east was at its fiercest. No wonder Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave the White House a passing grade on Moscow’s test, praising the Administration’s policy on Ukraine.
Having received the desired result, the Kremlin dialed back the violence this week. It now has reason to think that the Trump Administration will permit President Putin to have his way in Ukraine. This is dangerous.
Permitting the Kremlin to destabilize Ukraine would threaten vital U.S. interests in Europe. The security order that we established in Europe after World War II and renewed after the Cold War is the foundation of the extraordinary peace and prosperity that we have enjoyed for more than seventy years. The bases of that order are close Transatlantic ties, a strong NATO, and a stable Europe.
Under President Putin, Russia is challenging all of those things. Putin wants a new security order and a weakened NATO. He is insisting on a sphere of influence in his neighborhood that gives him the right to intervene and change borders by military might. He justified his seizure of Crimea by claiming that he was protecting ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers. He has said that the same principles that motivate his policy in Ukraine apply elsewhere in Europe, such as in NATO allies Estonia and Latvia, which have large ethnic Russian populations.
At the summit in Warsaw this past July, NATO approved the deployment of armed battalions to the three Baltic states, Poland, and Romania to deter Moscow from testing NATO’s resolve there. President Trump and his team should endorse these measures and, at the next NATO summit, reinforce our commitment to the Alliance, while at the same time insisting that all members pay their fair share for the common defense effort.
The Trump Administration should also understand the value of forward defense. Providing strong support for Ukraine—increasing the cost to the Kremlin of its aggression in that country—is a policy of strength that would protect our vital interests in Europe. It would also demonstrate to would-be aggressors everywhere that, under the new President, it is dangerous to trifle with U.S. interests.