The next Trump-Putin meeting in Osaka, Japan is only days away, but the White House is maintaining radio silence about what it hopes to achieve there. Meanwhile, three senior voices with experience of dealing with Russia, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford, the NSC’s in-house Russia expert Fiona Hill, and, reportedly, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, are all on their way out.
These developments are not linked, but they tell us a lot about how Russia policy actually works in the Trump administration.
The conventional wisdom has long held that Trump’s bizarre brand of Russian policy (which he invariably describes as “getting along with Russia”) doesn’t matter all that much because the rest of the U.S. government is taking a tougher line on the Kremlin’s misbehavior. When it comes to sanctions, military cooperation with Ukraine, or cyber operations against Russian critical infrastructure, this argument goes, largely sensible day-to-day decisions are being made.
Experienced professionals like Ambassador Huntsman, General Dunford, and Hill have focused on reestablishing reliable lines of communication with Russian counterparts that can be used to manage discrete pieces of business. In Dunford’s case, a secure hotline with Russian General Staff chief Valeriy Gerasimov has helped reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of unintentional military clashes in Syria’s crowded battlespace. All three have tried, with remarkable patience and firmness, to channel their boss’s undiminished desire to strike a grand bargain with Putin in a more realistic direction and to focus his energies on contending with a Kremlin that keeps ratcheting up the pressure rather than seeking a new modus vivendi.
Yet none of this obscures the fact that there is still no overarching Russia strategy in place, let alone the discipline to implement it. The Administration’s actual day to day policy on Russia is mostly reactive, bordering on incoherent. Sure, there’s lots of attention on the appearance of countering the Kremlin’s malign activities, but little sustained focus on how best to manage an adversarial relationship with Moscow over the long haul. Tough talk on issues like Venezuela or U.S. election meddling has hardly changed the Kremlin’s risk calculus. With different parts of the president’s team marching off in different directions, the result is a mishmash of competing approaches that don’t add up to an effective policy.
Consider the following. Hardly a week goes by without gratuitous moves by the White House to antagonize Germany, which used to be America’s single most important partner in managing relations with Russia. Trump’s frequent slaps at NATO and other U.S. alliance relationships are a gift to the Kremlin that keeps on giving. The decision to deploy more U.S. troops to Poland does little to deter Russia and serves mainly as a vehicle for tweaking the Germans while catering to Trump’s vanity about creating a possible “Fort Trump.”
Making matters worse is the propensity of powerful figures to pursue pet policies even if doing so doesn’t obviously align with the president’s stated priorities. For National Security Adviser John Bolton, that means trying to dismantle what’s left of the U.S.-Russian arms control edifice. His next target appears to be the 2010 New START Treaty on strategic arms reductions, which is due to expire in early 2021. In recent months, Bolton and his team of arms control skeptics (including Tim Morrison who will replace Hill) have been talking about roping in countries like China for new initiatives, but this seems to be a smokescreen for blocking agreement with Moscow on extending the New START treaty.
Then there are thinly disguised tensions between top players at the NSC, State Department and the Pentagon on whether it’s even useful to engage with the Russians. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has minimized his dealings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and subcontracted most of the work on topics like North Korea, Syria, and Afghanistan to special envoys. For his part, Bolton is actively courting Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, including via an unusual three-way conversation in Jerusalem June 25 with their Israeli counterpart.
That brings us to the questionable desirability of the Osaka meeting between the two presidents. Trump keeps insisting that release of the Mueller report means he can finally get down to business with Putin. But what exactly does he have in mind? Trump has never provided a coherent explanation for why Russia is so important to his vision for U.S. foreign policy. Instead, he’s limited himself mostly to happy talk while endorsing Putin’s clumsy denials about interference in the 2016 presidential election, including a disastrous performance alongside Putin at their Helsinki summit meeting last summer.
The blowback from Trump’s past encounters with Putin have even prompted jokes that the best way to avoid further deterioration to the U.S.-Russian relationship is simply to prevent the two leaders from ever meeting again. Putin has effortlessly outmaneuvered a far less experienced counterpart who famously disdains preparation and briefing materials. Does anyone even remember the time Trump endorsed Putin’s suggestion about forced repatriation of Syrian refugees under the auspices of the Assad regime? Or the “impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to fight election hacking unveiled at a July 2017 meeting in Hamburg, Germany? (The latter gaffe helped trigger a near-unanimous Congressional vote on new Russia sanctions legislation.)
The rest of the agenda for a meeting in Osaka looks almost completely barren. Russian officials have sharply criticized U.S. actions on Iran amid reports of aborted U.S. airstrikes late Thursday, suggesting that Trump is deliberately pushing the region into war. And they have compared tough U.S. rhetoric about Iran to the “ vials with white powder” that the Bush administration used to justify its invasion of Iraq.The administration has rather conveniently blamed Russia for its failure to engineer the swift removal of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, even though that exaggerates the extent of Russian influence in Latin America. In Ukraine, the Russians have ratcheted up pressure on newly-elected President Volodymyr Zelensky by handing out passports to residents of Donbas; Trump’s feckless attempt to condition any future meetings with Putin on the prompt release of 24 Ukrainian sailors and three naval vessels seized at the end of last year has been quietly buried.
Even in the best of times, none of these problems would be easy to manage, let alone resolve. But they are being exacerbated by Trump’s glaring shortcomings as a manager and continued inability to staff his national security team properly. Against that backdrop, the U.S.-Russian relationship is likely to stay stuck regardless of any grand gestures aimed at turning Putin into his “new best friend.” And, sadly, Trump’s own staff will continue to view interactions like the Osaka meeting as exercises in damage limitation, not as serious chances to advance U.S. national interests.