Constraining Russia in the Time of Trump

SAGE International Australia (SIA) Study on Contemporary Issues
By Dr. Jonathan Z. Ludwig,
Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK, USA
And Member of the SIA Advisory Board


It is rare that a candidate for President of the United States has substantial foreign policy experience. George H.W. Bush is that rare exception in the modern era, having served as Ambassador to the United Nations, Director of the CIA, envoy to China, and Vice President, all of which gave him the experience to help bring the USSR to a peaceful end, without gloating over the victory, and to build a broad coalition of nations to remove Iraq from Kuwait. Nevertheless, most candidates express some type of foreign policy vision, as well as have some specifics toward individual countries or issues that give an indication of which direction they will take. They also have a circle of experienced advisors from whom it is possible to glean basic approaches to these various issues.

President Donald Trump is an exception to all of this: he has no foreign policy experience; he has not articulated a clear foreign policy vision; during the election he avoided discussion of specific topics, outside of immigration, which crosses both foreign and domestic agendas; he does not have an inner circle of knowledgeable foreign policy advisors; and, if reports were true, he avoided offering briefs on foreign policy threats as President-elect in sharp contrast to Mike Pence, who as Vice President-elect, did receive and engage with the Presidential Daily Briefs. Whether Trump has been accepting these briefs as President remains in dispute.

For constructing policy toward some countries, this would not matter. No one, for example, is particularly concerned what US policy toward Uruguay will be. For dealing with Russia, however, the lack of a coherent vision and policy is particularly troubling, not only because of Russia’s size, but because of its perceived and real importance in the world as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s determination to overturn the establish world order. It is clear from the last eight years that America needs to cast a constantly wary eye directed at and have a firm, decisive policy towards Russia. It is equally clear that neither is likely to happen in the Trump Administration. Part of this is willful ignorance; part of this is a simple lack of understanding foreign policy and global issues; and part of it very well may be Trump’s alleged financial and other ties to Putin’s Russia. Contacts between Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign as National Security Advisor less than a month after taking the job, and Russian officials also call into question how Trump can design a coherent Russia policy that puts America’s needs and security, along with those of her allies, first.

Likewise, Trump made troubling statements during the election campaign, such as praising Putin as a “strong leader,” which could have indicated a policy of appeasement toward Russia just as much as it could have indicated an attempt to start relations afresh after the election. More troubling, however, is the statement of moral equivalency Trump made about Putin during his pre-Super Bowl interview with Bill O’Reilly. This was later followed by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus reaching out to the FBI and the Chairs of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, asking them to state publicly that Russia had no influence on the election. Their refusal to do so speaks volumes to their belief that Russia likely did play an adversarial and influential role in the 2016 election.

For the time being, these allegations mean that there can and will be no improvement in relations with Russia, for Trump will face opposition in his own party to any improvement. This includes from John McCain (R–AZ), Lindsey Graham (R–SC), James Lankford (R–OK), and Rand Paul (R–KY). In addition, Rex Tillerson, his now-Secretary of State, faced intense grilling by Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL) over Putin’s actions and Trump’s statements about them. Four of these Senators (Lankford, McCain, Rubio, and Paul) just won re-election, so they won’t have to face the voters for another six years, meaning that they can stand up against Trump with little political blowback at home. In addition, nine Republican Senators signed and sent a letter to Trump, stating that “we must never pursue cooperation with Russia at the expense of our fundamental interests of defending our allies and promoting our values” and outlined specific examples of aberrant Russian behavior.[1] With a 52–48 split in favor of the Republicans in the Senate, that makes it easy for a small number of Republican Senators, working with all the Democrats, to keep a wary eye on the Trump Administration’s dealings with Russia. Undoubtedly the numbers of public officials calling for investigations into the Trump-Russia relationship will increase. Some will be out of principle; many will be because politicians know a good bandwagon to jump on when it passes by.

In the long run, these allegations increasingly indicate that Trump may not be able to serve out his term as President, as the angrier Trump gets and the more he tries to distract from the Russia issue with ill-conceived, early-morning tweets suggest that investigators, whether in the press or in Congress, are getting closer to revealing some inconvenient truths about the Trump-Russia connection. This, however, will take time to play out and, until then, great uncertainty will remain as to what direction the Trump administration will attempt to take US–Russian relations, with a number increasingly fearing that Trump will attempt to give Putin anything he wants, including an elimination of sanctions. Fortunately, several of Trump’s cabinet members, including Tillerson, who is being sidelined in his role as America’s top diplomat, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, have indicated that they understand Russia to be a serious problem, openly splitting with Trump and thus making it more difficult for him to decide unilaterally to improve relations with Russia.

Until the full matter of Trump’s ties to Russia are resolved, it is necessary to proceed very cautiously in engaging Russia. The administration and Congress should keep in mind the lessons and successes from the Cold War. There are specific policy objectives that the Trump administration could undertake to both oppose and engage Russia in the upcoming months, but any attempt to improve relations must be sidelined until all the Trump-Russia investigations are complete. Much of the success of these proposals, however, are dependent on ending the war with the intelligence agencies.

Intelligence is the lifeblood of effective foreign policy engagement. The job of intelligence agencies is to gather, analyze, and report information to policy makers so that they can formulate policies and strategies that will secure America. Americans need to believe that what is done is based on intelligence that is accurate, and allies need to have confidence that what they share will be taken seriously and used appropriately. It’s one thing for policy makers to challenge and question the accuracy of the information they receive – intelligence agencies do the same before presenting it, and, of course, they don’t always get it right. Neither do policy makers. However, comparing intelligence services to agents of Nazi Germany is unacceptable, un-Presidential, and harms the national security of the United States, as does Trump making a five-minute rambling, nonsensical speech about himself, while standing in front of the CIA Memorial Wall. If reports are true, then agencies are very reluctant to share certain intelligence with the Trump administration for fear that the information will be passed to the Russians; continued abusive treatment will make them reluctant to share more or do more work than the bare minimum, putting national security and international stability at risk.

In order to ensure everyone has a high degree of confidence in the intelligence agencies, the information they provide, and the foreign policy making process the Team B initiative should be reestablished.[2] The original “Team B” was a 1970s-era three-team CIA exercise that examined anew Soviet military capabilities and strategic policy. Today there should again be three Team Bs, but with somewhat different foci: one to investigate any involvement by Trump or his people with Russia/the hacking scandal – this is the independent commission that so many in and outside of Congress are demanding; one to evaluate Russia’s resurgent military, filling a role similar to the original Team B; and one to evaluate how Russia policy is formulated, including how information is gathered, processed, analyzed, and distributed. Each of these Team Bs must be independent from Congress and include Russia scholars from around the nation, including in academia, as with the original, with consideration given to including others from the Five Eyes nations for the latter two teams. Congressional Committee investigations will hold the taint of politics, whether fair or not, while outside Commissions, especially those without career politicians, will give the public more confidence in their findings.

In addition, the Trump administration should reach out as quickly as possible to reassure NATO. Vice President Pence took a strong step toward doing exactly that by stating “the United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in our commitment to this trans-Atlantic alliance”[3] while at the Munich Security Conference in February 2017. However, actions speak louder than words, and Trump’s decision to hide out in Florida and play golf, while his national security team went to Munich likely has many allies still concerned. While it is true that most member nations, including Germany, must step up and make their 2% commitment immediately, NATO, with full US support, can take several steps now to demonstrate strength and unity to Russia. This includes placing missile defense forces in Central Europe, as originally planned, this time in response to Russian missiles in Kaliningrad, and putting trigger troops on the Russian border in the Baltics, as well as elsewhere, including in Poland, where US troops have just arrived and must remain. Putin understands and respects strength, so he will understand this, no matter how much he complains. With time, he may be forced to draw down his forces in Kaliningrad and along the borders. Putin will also have to be wary, lest he risk a military confrontation he will very likely lose, or lest he drive historically neutral nations like Sweden, who just reintroduced conscription in response to Russian adventurism, or Finland into joining NATO.

Finally, there should be a long-term policy commitment, transcending politics and political parties, to return to Containment, which would mean constraining Russia. In the modern world, it is nearly impossible to contain any nation-state fully, but the West can take certain actions to isolate Russia, cutting it off from the outside world as much as possible. The West’s greatest strength is in her unity of purpose, and Russia’s greatest weakness is an economy based on resource extraction; this can be used to the West’s advantage. In addition to maintaining, strengthening, and even increasing the sanctions the West has leveled on Russia for the seizure of Crimea, strong consideration should be given to providing arms to Ukraine. Sanctions will hurt Russia in the long run, as will a concerted effort to keep resource prices low, should the West remain firmly united and committed to them. In addition, NATO, the EU, and the Five Eyes nations can band together to create rapid response forces to deal with illicit Russian financial flows, seizing questionable funds and tracing them back to their source. Likewise, the united West should respond to cyber-attacks with alacrity and resolve, including with a Stuxnet-like response that would demonstrate that the US and its allies still has strong cyber capabilities not revealed in the latest WikilLeaks document dump. Any cyber actions would be strengthened if NATO invoked Article 5, as British General Sir Adrian Bradshaw recently suggested. This did not happen after Estonia was attacked in 2007, but it would send a powerful, united message now, on the eve of various European elections. In public fora, the united West can also reaffirm its commitment to the Helsinki Accords, the Paris Charter, and make it clear at the United Nations that Russia stands either alone or only with other pariah states when it comes to issues of international stability.

None of these policies should preclude still talking to and working with Russia, just as the West occasionally found common ground with the Soviet Union, when feasible and as long as it isn’t at the expense of any of Russia’s neighbors. As Ms. Kira Bre Clingen noted, there is a long history of working on smaller issues,[4] often behind the scenes, where the stakes might be just as big – climate change, the space program, agriculture, people-to-people exchanges – but where the potential political fallout is less and, therefore, no one tries to stop them. There is also mutual interest in dealing with terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation issues on a higher level, and we must remember there were weapons reduction discussions and treaties that occurred during the darker days of the Soviet Union. A recent combined survey[5] by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Moscow-based Levada Center asked what Americans and Russians saw as “critical threats.” The only three that received more than 50% from both sets of respondents were: “international terrorism,” “unfriendly countries obtaining nuclear capabilities,” and “Islamic fundamentalism,” with over 50% of Americans also concerned about the “North Korean nuclear program.” These are clearly areas in which the Russian and American governments could work together, openly, and in a global context. Even here, though, the West must be wary, for America and Russia have vastly different objectives in Syria; thus, Syria will not be a place for successful cooperation. [6]

No Russia policy will be successful in the long run, however, unless the West finds a way to invest in Russian language and Russian studies education.

The Times (UK), in its Friday, 3 March 2017 issue, printed three letters stressing the importance of promoting Russian language studies for enhanced national security and blaming the failures of contemporary Russia policies on the lack of Russia experts: “The Foreign Office’s shortage of competent Russian-language speakers affects its ability to interact not just with Russia but across a much wider region where Russian remains the lingua franca.” The same is true for the United States. Former US Senator (D–OK) and current President of the University of Oklahoma David Boren noted, also on Friday, that “[w]e must find partnerships for peace, but [we] have to know our partners’ languages, history and beliefs.” Both of these statements come on the heels of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) releasing America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century on 28 February 2017, a Congressional-mandated study that offers a blueprint on how to offer high-quality language education throughout and outside of formal education. While all languages are important, few are as important right now as Russian. The lack of experts, who also know Russian, means that there are few who can speak to issues pertaining to Russia knowledgeably and who therefore can serve on the Commissions necessary to investigate Russia and advise on policy.[7]

Today, Russia is determined to overturn the world order, but without offering anything in exchange. This is why Russia must be contained and controlled, through actions outlined here. It is likely, however, that few of those that require a long-term commitment will happen, and the world will be a less safe and less stable place because of it. Trump will certainly prefer a transactional approach to foreign policy, meaning that countries such as Russia that play a destabilizing role would be able to find a way to buy their way out of trouble. Uncertainty as to the nature of the relationship between Trump and the Russians will keep this approach from happening as long as the uncertainty continues, but Congress and the American people – as well as her allies around the world – must remain vigilant, especially the longer Trump remains in office.

Resolving the issues of Trump and Russia, while dealing with Russia with a firm hand, is not only about reaffirming American democracy, free of outside meddling, and protecting her interests at home and abroad. It’s also about sending a message that Russian interference in democracy and its continuing attempt to undermine the world order is not acceptable anywhere, especially in Europe, where Putin is taking increasingly hostile and overt actions to destabilize the democratic process. Exposing Putin and stopping Russia abroad means not having to counter them in America; exposing Putin and stopping Russia everywhere means a more stable world.

Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of SAGE International Australia










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