This week, President Donald Trump unilaterally decided to pull American troops out of Syria after declaring victory, then saw his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, quit in protest of Trump’s national security worldview. These abrupt developments caused no end of alarm, frustration, and turmoil in most American political quarters as well as in the capitals of American allies.
Trump said on Friday, however, that he was the toughest president in history when it came to dealing with Russia. He did not point to specifics.
There has never been a president who has been tougher (but fair) on China or Russia – Never, just look at the facts. The Fake News tries so hard to paint the opposite picture.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2018
In reality, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies were among the few people on earth who were happy with the American president’s moves. Russia’s goal when it comes to the United States is chaos, gaining larger areas of unfettered influence, and disrupting Western alliances.
In fact, many of the Trump administration’s most inexplicable or controversial foreign policy moves begin to make sense when viewed as Trump capitulating to Russian policy objectives.
Here are a few:
Withdrawing from Syria
Trump said Thursday that Russia is “not happy” with his decision to pull the United States out of Syria, despite the fact that Putin directly praised Trump’s decision, saying, “If the United States decided to withdraw its force, then this would be right.”
Fox News’ Shepard Smith responded to the news by saying it was “hard to believe what’s happened. In the face of counsel not to do so by everyone in his administration and everyone in the Pentagon, the president gets off a phone call with the president of Turkey, then does the bidding of Russia, and Vladimir Putin thanks him, while the defense secretary resigns. It is unprecedented in American history, isn’t it?”
On Saturday, the American envoy to the global coalition fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk, resigned his post in protest of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. In McGurk’s email to staff, he said Trump’s reversal “left our coalition partners confused and our fighting partners bewildered.”
Russia has been both fighting ISIS and propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has also had historical strategic ties to Syria. It has been actively hostile to relief groups like the White Helmets. The departure of American forces from the country is unquestionably a boon for Putin.
Driving Mattis out
Secretary Mattis’s resignation letter explained that he could not remain in Trump’s cabinet because of a disagreement about “being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors,” one paragraph after saying China and Russia “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.” Mattis is very unlikely to be replaced with someone who will be more clear-eyed about Russia’s malignancy or competition — another boon for Russia.
Trump has regularly attacked American allies in NATO, the weakening of which is a key Russian priority dating back to the founding of NATO.
He has called the trans-Atlantic alliance “obsolete” even though former Soviet satellite states depend on it to resist active Russian hostility and NATO is what allowed the United States to take immediate coalition action following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Trump has been quiet in the face of continued Russian aggression in Ukraine. When asked about Russia’s drive to get back into the G-7 following its expulsion due to the annexation of Crimea, he has avoided the question and blamed Obama.
President Obama and other G-7 leaders said in a joint statement that Russia’s action “violates the principles upon which the international system is built.” It was not because, as Trump argued, Obama didn’t like Putin.
Ukraine’s foreign affairs minister said this week the country needs Western help in the face of constant Russian hostility. “But this assault is first and foremost an attack on the Western values that we, Ukrainians, so wholeheartedly share,” Pavlo Klimkin wrote in Politico. “That Ukrainian people have resolutely chosen to look westward — to the EU, to NATO, to the transatlantic community — is anathema to Putin. He cannot countenance or accept this, which is why he will do whatever he can to destroy Ukraine.”
Defending Putin in Helsinki
The entire joint press conference in Helsinki was disaster for the United States and an unfettered win for Vladimir Putin — Trump said he believed Putin’s contention that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, over the advice of the U.S. intelligence community. Trump then tried to walk it back by saying he said the opposite of the thing he actually said, which did nothing but unleash more chaos into the American political system and consternation among Americas allies.
Disclosing intelligence to Russian officials
In May 2017, Trump met in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to the United States and disclosed classified information from an Israeli source (which confused and antagonized Israeli allies). Later, he confirmed the source of intelligence he disclosed to the Russians. There’s no punchline here — this is obviously behavior more simpatico to Russian interests than American interests.
Seeking to relax sanctions on Russian businesses
This week, the Trump administration sought to ease sanctions on aluminum giant Rusal, owned by sanctioned Russian billionaire and Putin ally Oleg Deripaska. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that Rupal and several other companies “committed to significantly diminish Deripaska’s ownership and sever his control.” The United States imposed these sanctions earlier this year over Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Treasury did announce new sanctions on 15 additional Russian intelligence operatives at the same time.
Some targets of U.S. sanctions have hired lawyers with ties to Trump in order to seek relief.
There has been a pattern of Trump’s Treasury Department softening the impact of the sanctions and giving businesses more time to try to comply.
In November, the administration also missed a key deadline for sanctions related to Russia’s use of a chemical weapon in the an assassination attempt in the United Kingdom earlier this year. This caused outgoing Rep. Ed Royce (R-PA) to call it “unacceptable.”
This is an area of inquiry reportedly of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.