Commentary Magazine

The Russian Stooge Who Squeezed Russia

Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

In some progressive and Never-Trump circles, it is an article of faith that Vladimir Putin helped President Trump get elected in the hope that the New Yorker would tilt U.S. foreign policy toward Moscow. If that’s true, then the Russian strongman made a dreadful investment. Under Trump, Washington is doing far more to put pressure on Russia than it ever did under his “flexible” predecessor.

Witness this week’s warning from the Trump administration to governments around the world that buying arms from Putin could result in U.S. sanctions. The mere threat of American financial pressure has already focused minds and compelled a rethink among foreign leaders who had lined up for toy-shopping in Moscow. That’s according to an unnamed senior U.S. official quoted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Turkey, currently in talks to purchase the S-400 air-defense system from Russia, has received such a warning, the official said. So has Armenia, which maintains deep strategic and economic ties with both Tehran and Moscow. “We are monitoring the situation [of potential U.S. sanctions],” the country’s deputy foreign minister, Shavarsh Kocharyan, told Radio Azatayun, the Armenian service of RFE/RL. “At the same time, we want to maintain relations and cooperation with Russia in this sphere, as it is an important part of our security.”

Naturally, “realist” foreign-policy types are already criticizing the sanctions warning as overly broad and unenforceable. Trump, they argue, can’t possibly sanction every country that buys weapons from Russia, the world’s second-largest arms exporter. The policy will thus necessarily be applied in selective, inconsistent fashion. No one imagines that the U.S. will sanction major allies like India for entering into defense contracts with Moscow.

But who cares? Inconsistency and even hypocrisy are far from the worst sins in the life of great powers. If American financial pressure–or the threat of it–causes NATO member Turkey to back down from deploying Russia’s signature air-defense system, that would be a good day.

The bigger point is that we can now add squeezing Russia’s defense industry to the list of things the Trump administration is doing to confront Russian revanchism. Other notable steps include authorizing the transfer of defensive weapons to Ukraine; bombing a runway used by Russia’s main Arab client, Bashar Assad, to gas his people; shoring up long-neglected U.S. defenses; revamping America’s nuclear-force posture in Europe, and ending the previous administration’s drive toward unilateral disarmament. Oh, and I almost forgot: blowing to smithereens as many as 200 Russian operatives in Syria.

All of which raises a question: Why won’t proponents of the Trump-as-Kremlin-stooge theory acknowledge the deeply anti-Russian thrust of U.S. policy today? Why do they sneer when the president boasts, correctly, that he has been “much tougher” on the Kremlin than Obama was? I think the answer is obvious. Many of these critics, especially on the Never-Trump right, can’t get over Trump’s anti-NATO grumblings and his grotesque Putin bromance during the campaign and in the early days of his presidency. And that’s understandable: Trump’s suggestions that the U.S. is morally equal to Putin’s thuggish regime will long stain his legacy and the office he occupies.

But facts change. And smart people can change their minds.

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