On Sunday morning, President Trump, home from the G20 Summit in Germany, announced on Twitter that “it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!” If the president’s meeting with Vladimir Putin over the weekend is any indication, that’s good news for the Kremlin and bad news for the U.S.
Trump’s first face-to-face encounter with Putin since becoming president was less an attempt to press American interests with an adversary than to gin up a diplomatic “bromance,” à la Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron, or Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.
According to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, “there was a very clear positive chemistry” between Trump and Putin, and “they connected very quickly.” Indeed, Tillerson’s readout of the meeting was a veritable symphony of whistling past the graveyard on nearly every issue of importance: The two leaders “acknowledged the challenges of cyber threats and interference in the democratic processes of the United States and other countries,” for example, and “agreed to explore creating a framework around which the two countries can work together to better understand how to deal with these cyber threats.” President Trump suggested on Twitter that they “discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit” — a fox-guarding-the-henhouse solution if ever there was one. (The president seemed to back off the idea in a later tweet Sunday evening.) They also chatted about Syria, where, according to Tillerson, American and Russian “objectives are exactly the same.”
The above is so much nonsense, but it’s clear that the president and his team have decided that an attempt at affectionate relations is worth the cost — namely, allowing the Kremlin to get off relatively cost-free after it attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election and as it continues to prop up the murderous Assad regime in Syria.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama both thought that they could establish friendly relations with Russia’s authoritarian leader. Both presidents eventually adopted a more antagonistic line — President Obama spent the final days of his presidency expelling Russian spies from the country. The simple fact is that Vladimir Putin is a cold-eyed cynic willing to ruthlessly pursue the expansion of his, and Russia’s, power, whether that means exporting arms to terrorists in the Middle East or assassinating dissidents and journalists at home. Putin’s thuggery and the failure of the optimistic approach of the last 16 years are plain to see. Nonetheless, Donald Trump seems bent on repeating the mistakes of his predecessors, and with even less reason to have illusions about the Russian leader.
What is needed, obviously, is a clear-eyed view of Vladimir Putin and his aims. The president is not incapable of this. He seems to be sobering up to the facts about President Xi Jinping in China; after a warm meeting with him in Mar-a-Lago, Trump is, predictably, finding Xi much less helpful than advertised when it comes to, among other issues, the lunatic regime in North Korea.
On cybersecurity, a more realistic view means recognizing that Russia is not interested in an alliance against other nefarious actors; it means recognizing that Russia is one of the nefarious actors, and that any realistic cybersecurity strategy will involve hardening our defenses against Russian threats, which are coming thick and fast not only against government servers but also against the digital infrastructure of major American businesses.
In this regard, it’s critical that the United States not dismiss Russia’s election-related hacking with a shrug. American intelligence agencies agree that Russia waged a hostile cyber offensive against the United States in the run-up to last year’s election, and a January report from the director of national intelligence warned that “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the U.S. presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against U.S. allies and their election processes.” Ensuring that that does not happen means punishing Russia severely for last year’s adventurism.
The White House reportedly has flirted with the idea of lifting the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration late last year. That would be a mistake. The Senate agrees. That chamber recently passed, nearly unanimously, a robust sanctions package that would codify President Obama’s sanctions and expand them, taking direct aim at Russia’s (intertwined) defense and energy sectors. The House should pass and the president should sign that bill in the strongest possible form.
As for Syria, Russia is not leaving anytime soon — since Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” allowed Putin to establish a foothold and flex his muscle in the Middle East. But this does not mean that the U.S. should play the patsy time and again, which was the Obama policy. The U.S. must work with allied forces to hold as much territory as possible to establish a position of strength, with the ultimate goal of negotiating a decent peace and probable de facto partition.
President Trump has said that his foreign policy will be based on “principled realism.” This weekend’s meeting makes clear that that his approach to Russia is in urgent need of more principle and more realism, both.