National Security & Defense

Trump and Russia

Soldier sits atop a Russian army vehicle in Crimea, 2014. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Vladimir Putin’s Russia pursues its own interest at all costs, not friendship with the West.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has adopted a position on Russia that is uninformed even by comparison with the “reset” policy of Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent. If implemented, it would leave the U.S. helpless in its relations with Russia, seriously threatening the independence of our democratic allies.

If the Obama-Clinton reset policy was intended to undo the damage to U.S.–Russia relations supposedly done by President Bush, what Trump is proposing is that the U.S. and Russia become de facto allies and work together “to defeat terrorism and restore world peace.”

Trump has indicated that he is open to lifting sanctions against Russia imposed after the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and to cooperating with Russia in Syria, ostensibly against the Islamic State. He has suggested that the NATO alliance is passé and that, if elected, he would not necessary abide by the U.S. commitment under NATO to defend the Baltic republics.

Trump’s Russia policy, however, has no chance of leading to an improvement in relations between the U.S. and Russia or to greater world stability. The reason is that although the U.S. wants Russia as a friend, Russia’s leaders need the U.S. as an enemy. Only in this way, can the anger of the Russian people be directed against the West instead of against them.

The leaders of post-Soviet Russia use wars to achieve internal political objectives. The first Chechen war was “a small victorious war” that was calculated to raise the popularity of President Boris Yeltsin, which fell because of the suffering caused by market “reforms” in the 1990s. The second Chechen war was started to save the Yeltsin entourage from prison or worse and assure Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. Four apartment buildings in Buinaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk were blown up in 1999, killing 300 people; the attack was blamed on Chechen terrorists. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that the bombings were carried out by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet-era KGB. This evidence includes the fact that FSB agents were caught after placing a bomb in a fifth building in Ryazan southeast of Moscow and that Gennady Seleznev, the speaker of the Russian Duma, announced the bombing in Volgodonsk on September 16, 1999 — three days before it occurred.

The bombings were used to justify a new invasion of Chechnya and success in that war brought Putin to power. In other words, there is overwhelming evidence that Putin rules as a result of an act of terror against his own people.

The leaders of post-Soviet Russia use wars to achieve internal political objectives.

The war in Ukraine was also a diversion. It was launched to distract the Russian people from the lessons of the Maidan revolt in Ukraine, specifically that it is possible for a people to organize spontaneously and overthrow a kleptocratic regime. The war in Syria, in turn, was undertaken in order to distract attention from the lack of success in Ukraine. The ambitious plans to carve out a “New Russia” from sovereign Ukrainian territory were at least temporarily frozen in the face of Western sanctions and stiff Ukrainian military resistance.

Trump’s call for a grand bargain with Russia is therefore naïve and misguided. It will not inspire Russia to cooperate with the U.S. for the common good but instead serve as an open invitation to further aggression with potentially serious consequences. The following are a few of them:

Ukraine: At the present time, Russian troops are massing in areas of occupied Crimea adjacent to mainland Ukraine. The Ukrainians expect an offensive by the Russian Army at any time. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians report that the Russian-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine on August 8 attacked Ukrainian army positions 61 times in 24 hours.

The Russian-separatist army, built up by Russia on Ukrainian territory, consists of an estimated 40,000 fighters — 12,000 of whom are regular Russian troops. Leadership and coordination are provided by Russia. This force is equipped with multiple rocket launchers, anti-aircraft systems, and more tanks than many members of NATO. It is supported by another 50,000 Russian troops stationed just over the border on the Russian side.

There has been a lull in the fighting in recent months which removed Ukraine from the world’s headlines. But statements by U.S. politicians that undermine faith in the American will to react to aggression will encourage the Putin regime to intensify its efforts to destabilize Ukraine with a new offensive whether Trump is elected or not.

The Baltics: Russia cannot defeat the U.S. or NATO in an all-out war but it has strategic superiority in the Baltics where it could provoke a conflict and then threaten to use nuclear weapons, presenting NATO with a choice of escalation or backing down.

The Russians are clearly ready to take risks. On April 14, a Russian SU-27 fighter jet flew dangerously close to a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the Baltic Sea. It came within 50 feet of the American plane and conducted a barrel roll starting from the left side of the aircraft, going over the aircraft, and ending up on the aircraft’s right. This incident came two days after a simulated Russian aerial assault against the guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea. One of the jets flew within 30 feet of the warship. This was the most reckless flyover of an American ship by a Russian jet since the Cold War.

The Russians are clearly ready to take risks.

The Russian leaders are not fanatics. The effort that they have invested in amassing personal fortunes attests to this. They will not risk their hold on power on behalf of a conflict they know they will lose. But they could miscalculate, which is why statements such as Trump’s that question U.S. treaty commitments are likely to invite a crisis rather than avoid one.

Indiscriminate violence: The Russian authorities act with a complete disregard for human life. In Syria, the Russian bombing is indiscriminate. According to the Violations Documentation Center, which seeks to document the attacks by all sides, the civilian death toll from Russian strikes in six months until mid-March was over 2,000. In January, according the Syria Network for Human Rights, another monitoring organization, Russian air strikes killed 679 civilians. This exceeded the number of civilians killed during that period by the Syrian Army, which is also guilty of indiscriminate bombing, as well as by ISIS (98 killed) and the al-Nusra Front (42 killed).

In light of the dangers that the present Russian regime represents, what matters is deterrence.

The bombing of civilian targets in Syria, including bakeries and hospitals, also increases the flow of refugees toward Turkey and Europe, exacerbating internal tensions in those regions and creating pressure to accept a resolution of the Syrian crisis on Russian terms.

Americans have not been immune to Russian aggression. An American was among the victims when on July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine killing all 298 persons on board. The Dutch Safety Board confirmed that MH17 was destroyed by a missile fired from a Russian made BUK anti-aircraft battery. The Putin regime, in complete disregard for the safety of innocent international air travelers, had transferred missiles capable of shooting down planes flying at over 30,000 feet to a quickly assembled army fighting in an area traversed by one of the busiest commercial air corridors in the world.

There was also an American victim, Sandy Booker of Oklahoma, in the 2002 Moscow theater siege in which the Russian authorities flooded a theater with lethal gas. In all cases, the Russian leaders will respect civilian lives, including those of Americans, only to the degree that they fear that they may be called to account. If an American leader like Trump responds to reports of Russian crimes by saying, “we kill plenty of people too,” he is removing what little restraint Russians are likely to exercise in military conflicts and increasing the risks to uninvolved Americans as well.

Trump has expressed concern for Putin’s attitude for him. He said that he believes that Trump respects him and wonders if Putin likes him, as if this was in some way relevant. Carter Page, an adviser to Trump on Russia policy, blamed the tensions between the U.S. and Russia on the “often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption, and regime change.”

In light of the dangers that the present Russian regime represents, however, what matters is deterrence, which always has a strong psychological element. Restraining the behavior of the Putin regime requires creating the impression in both word and deed that violations will meet with a serious response. If Trump becomes president, he will, of course, have access to intelligence information that may change some of his impressions. But if he persists in his shallow opinions, the consequences could be felt by everyone.

David Satter — David Satter has written four books about Russia, including, most recently, The Less You Know, the Better You Sleep: Russia’s Road to Terror and Dictatorship under Yeltsin and Putin, now available in paperback. He is the only American journalist to be expelled from Russia since the end of the Cold War.

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