It has been a full week since Donald Trump met Vladimir Putin in Hamburg at this year’s G20 meeting—and what a week it’s been. The revelations regarding a meeting the President’s son had with a shady Russian lawyer this past year have cast a pall over his Administration. At the very minimum, the campaign betrayed a profoundly reckless and callow attitude toward the prospect of actively cooperating with a country that wishes us ill. While Trump Administration surrogates are furiously arguing that there was nothing strictly illegal about the meeting, and even trying out various “what about” counter-narratives, it’s clear that President Trump is in Bill Clinton territory with his denials (“it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘collusion’ is”). And there is an unmistakeable feeling in the air in Washington that the scandal has only just begun.
That said, the outlines of the actual Russia policy put together by Trump’s cabinet remains a cause for cautious optimism. As I wrote a week ago, Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson went into the talks with a much stronger hand than almost anyone noticed, and they walked out without having given away the house.
This is not to say that the Hamburg tête-à-tête went smoothly—it didn’t. And driving the car into rocky terrain with reckless abandon was nobody else but the Commander in Chief. Still, things could be worse. Much worse.
Most journalists focused on the exchange between Putin and Trump on election meddling—on whether President Trump did or did not “accept” Putin’s denials. Overall, Trump came off as weak and conciliatory in the exchange, making every effort to de-personalize the confrontation by couching the questions to Putin in terms of the “concerns of the American people.” Tillerson, relaying details of the meeting to journalists afterward, tried to characterize the exchange as an intractable difference of opinion, and argued that both sides wanted to “move on.” But what came of this attempt to “move on” was telling.
Coming out of the meeting, two concrete things were announced. One was a limited ceasefire in the southwest of Syria (apparently negotiated without input from the Pentagon) the details of which remain either ill-defined or unannounced. The other was the possibility of creating something President Trump dubbed an “impenetrable Cyber-Security Unit.” A week later, the former is holding, more or less; the latter collapsed within hours of President Trump’s jubilant initial tweet announcing it.
Exactly what Trump and Putin actually discussed on cybersecurity remains a mystery. Smart Kremlin-watcher Leonid Bershidsky pointed out that creating a kind of established channel for mooting cyber issues may have been what Putin was driving at—not an insane idea, given how few norms exist regulating cyberwarfare. An overenthusiastic Trump, giddy at the prospect of “moving on,” may have read more into the proposal, but was told in no uncertain terms by his intelligence chiefs that it was a non-starter as described.
On other issues, however, Trump held his ground. There was some speculation ahead of the meetings that the United States would return the so-called “dachas”—Russian properties in the United States impounded by the Obama Administration in its waning days in retaliation for election meddling—as a gesture of good will. That notably did not happen.
As for the lifting of sanctions over Russia’s behavior in Ukraine, it appears the subject was broached but not discussed at any length, and remains tied to some kind of final resolution to the crisis. As widely noted this past Friday, the appointment of Kurt Volker as Special Envoy suggests that the Trump Administration is going to drive a hard bargain. And indeed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Kyiv after the G20, where he met with President Petro Poroshenko, and stated that “sanctions on Russia will remain in place until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered these particular sanctions”—an unambiguous reference to the return of Crimea.
So what’s going on behind the scenes? There is clearly a faction in the White House, which most likely includes the President himself, that is determined to normalize relations with Russia as much, and as quickly, as possible.
Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s deputy assistant, was on CNN yesterday saying that the Administration was still weighing giving back the “dachas” to Russia as a sweetener. Why this is on the table is hard to comprehend. The Russians do not need further inducements; after all, we have many things they want, while the reverse is not really true. In the fight against ISIS in Syria, help would be nice but at the end of the day is not required. (Stabilizing Syria afterwards will necessarily involve Moscow, so warm relations are strictly optional.) With regard to Afghanistan, North Korea, and the Western Balkans, the Russians have been nothing but irritants and spoilers. For years under President Obama and for six months under President Trump, the United States has shown admirable forbearance in the face of such provocations. If the Russians want to start talking about improving relations, the good-will gestures ought to come from the Kremlin.
It’s increasingly difficult not to impute dubious motives to President Trump in his quixotic attempts to play nice with Putin. Even Rex Tillerson, a cabinet member with a warm personal relationship with the President, was apparently taken aback by Trump’s “let’s get this out of the way” opening in discussing election meddling with Putin.
Yet despite all this, some sort of hard line on Russia is holding despite the President’s apparent predilections. Tillerson’s trip to Kyiv left little wiggle room for a subsequent selling-out of Crimea. A 40 percent increase in military spending on the Obama-era European Reassurance Initiative is in the 2018 budget, and insulated from the sequester. The Administration is committing itself to helping Europe diversify its energy imports away from Russia, both by encouraging the development of LNG infrastructure through efforts like the Three Seas Initiative, and through sanctions targeting the expansion of new Russian pipelines to the Continent. To put it in terms Putin understands, the Trump Administration has all but declared that Europe, including Ukraine, is a U.S. “privileged sphere of interest.”
And the message has not been lost on Moscow, where initial enthusiasm over the Hamburg summit has cooled. The Kremlin is preparing to expel some 30-odd American “diplomats” and seize some diplomatic property in Moscow. A last-ditch attempt to discuss the issue is scheduled for early next week, but a petulant Kremlin is demanding an immediate and unconditional return of its properties before any further talks can occur. There’s even talk of Russia vetoing the looming North Korean sanctions proposal in the UN, on the grounds that Russian analysts do not believe that the most recent missile tested by Pyongyang was an ICBM.
It should go without saying, especially to a transactionally minded Administration, that we should not give into these kinds of childish demands. As Trump himself said when discussing Ukraine sanctions with journalists the other day, “Why would I take sanctions off without getting anything?” And yet here we are, discussing making unilateral concessions in a different context.
The paradox is that Donald Trump’s cabinet has managed to construct a pretty solid strategy, perhaps despite their leader. No less a critic than Obama’s Russia hand, Ambassador Mike McFaul, praised the recent op-ed by General H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn in the New York Times: “Wish it was ACTUAL policy,” he tweeted. As a matter of fact, it does appear to be actual policy. Whether Donald Trump abides by it—well, that’s another question altogether.