Americans knew that business as usual in Washington would change when Donald Trump took office. The form that change would take remains, for the most part, a mystery. The Trump White House’s allergy to policy detail has been a short-term benefit for Trump and his team. Their vagueness has led the administration’s opponents to assume the worst, robbing them of credibility when they are corrected and scolded by administration officials. Perhaps no Trump administration policy has led to more apprehension than the president’s expected pursuit of rapprochement with Russia. Bluster and bravado out of the White House regarding its position on Moscow seem to be masking an increasingly obvious revelation: The Trump administration doesn’t have a Russia policy.
As John Podhoretz observed, Donald Trump’s comments over the weekend, in which he drew a moral equivalency between the United States and Russia, were abhorrent. Willful blindness to the faults and failings of one’s birthplace does not describe any true patriotism. Nor, however, was Trump striking an enlightened posture. This was a drowning man grasping at flotsam in a shipwreck. The president wasn’t making a sagacious point about moral relativism; he was trying to escape the corner into which he had painted himself.
The United States does not involve itself in the murder of journalists or opposition figures unfriendly to the White House in an ostentatious fashion designed to intimidate their would-be imitators. The United States does not invade its neighbors and carve off portions of their territory to exploit its peoples and resources—at least, not yet. The United States at war does not bomb civilian hospitals or United Nations aid convoys, nor do they abet the starvation of entire cities. Russia does.
Trump appears to view any retreat, even from indefensible terrain, as some sort of failure of character. That he would impugn the country he purports to lead in his effort to save personal face is craven and unbecoming.
In isolation, Trump’s comment could be written off as more evidence of this administration’s desire to seek accommodation with Russia. On that score, however, Trump has sent some unmistakably mixed signals since January 20. If the administration wants to accommodate Russia’s geopolitical objectives, it’s going about it in a confounding fashion.
“I must condemn the aggressive actions of Russia,” declared United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley in her first address to that global body. “Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.” Vice President Mike Pence appeared to echo this conventional position on Russian abuses over the weekend, albeit more cautiously. The vice president floated the prospect of lifting sanctions on Russia if Washington observed “changes in posture” from Moscow and a renewed commitment to “common interests.” Pence suggested one of those interests was the destruction of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This admission contradicts Trump’s campaign-trail claims that Russia was already engaged in an effective anti-ISIS campaign—a claim that was always unsupported.
Despite the belief that he would move quickly to reassure Moscow, Donald Trump did not immediately go about lifting Obama-era sanctions imposed on Russian institutions and individuals. That’s not going to change anytime soon, says Politico. According to its reporting, Trump told former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on the sidelines of the National Prayer Breakfast last week that he would not lift the sanctions until Russia withdraws entirely from Ukraine. If the United States continues to view occupied Crimea as Ukrainian territory, the prospect of full Russian withdrawal and the reciprocal lifting of sanctions is an unlikely one.
It is a breach of diplomatic protocol for Trump to have conveyed this message to a Ukrainian opposition leader who is expected to challenge sitting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko—one that may damage Washington’s relationship with the current Ukrainian government—but it is a safe bet that message was transmitted to Moscow.
Some Western observers have also misread the White House readout of a call between Trump and Poroshenko as more evidence of Trump’s Russophilia. The statement the White House released following the call was criticized for characterizing the conflict in Ukraine as a “border” dispute. It’s not; the fighting is ongoing deep inside Eastern Ukraine. Overlooked by some analysts, however, was a reference to “Ukraine’s long-running conflict with Russia.” This is a comment that flatly contradicts the Russian version of events. Moscow maintains that the conflict in Ukraine is entirely internecine; Russia is not involved. If the Kremlin hoped Trump would abandon portions of the Minsk II agreement demanding the restoration of Kiev’s sovereignty over the border with Russia, this readout is not a promising sign.
Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon revealed on Monday that the Trump administration’s prosecution of what it calls Iranian violations of the JCPOA (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) and United Nations Security Council resolutions is an effort to drive a wedge between Russia and its ally, Iran. Even he conceded, though, that this strategy does not resolve the “mixed signals” the administration is telegraphing. More likely, the Trump administration risks cementing Russia’s alliance with Iran further by antagonizing Iran while failing to provide Vladimir Putin assurances that Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe will be respected.
If all of this sounds confusing and convoluted, that’s because it is. The president has made many rhetorical gestures of deference and fealty toward Putin, and—like every other statement the president makes—he rejects even tactical retreats. For Trump, every hill is a good hill on which to die. Beyond the rhetoric, however, there is no indication the Trump administration has a coherent Russia policy. At least, not yet.