FPI Bulletin: Russian Provocations Put U.S. on Notice

February 9, 2017

What price will Vladimir Putin charge for an improvement in U.S.-Russian relations? Just days after Putin’s first phone call to President Trump, combined Russian-separatist forces launched a significant attack in eastern Ukraine. Shortly thereafter, Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza was apparently poisoned and fell into a coma. The hesitation of the Trump White House to condemn either development suggests that the cost of improving relations with Russia may be a diminished concern for the rights and the security of both Russian citizens and Russia’s neighbors.

A Tepid Response

While bipartisan concerns about human rights have long stood in the way of closer ties with the Kremlin, President Trump has stunned both Republicans and Democrats with his efforts to excuse the brutality of the Putin regime. When interviewer Bill O’Reilly questioned the prospects for an effective partnership with a “killer” like Putin, Trump insisted that the United States was no better than Russia, since “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?” Regrettably, O’Reilly did not ask Trump to justify his comparison of the United States to a government that tortures and executes its critics.

With regard to Putin’s foreign aggression, the White House has avoided any suggestion that Russia is responsible for the war in Ukraine. After Trump’s first telephone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, the White House released a brief and nonspecific summary that carefully omitted both any statement of blame for the recent violence as well as any indication of support for Kyiv’s independence. What’s more, the summary attributed to President Trump the puzzling statement that he wanted to help Russia and Ukraine “restore peace along the border.” The war, however, is not along the border but deep within eastern Ukraine, where government troops face combined Russian-separatist forces along a 250-mile front.

The one forceful statement about Russia came from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who said “The United States stands with the people of Ukraine, who have suffered for nearly three years under Russian occupation and military intervention. Until Russia and the separatists it supports respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, this crisis will continue.” At her confirmation hearing in January, Haley spoke candidly about Russian war crimes in Syria. For now, Haley’s voice seems to be one of dissent within an administration that would prefer not to acknowledge Putin’s true nature.

Policy Options

As a candidate and as president, Trump has adamantly called for a partnership with Russia in order to destroy the Islamic State. He has brushed aside considerable evidence that neither Russia nor its Syrian clients have much interest in the rapid destruction of the Islamic State. What’s more, Trump has suggested the pursuit of a counter-ISIS partnership with Russia would require the United States to lift the sanctions it imposed following the annexation of Crimea.

The false premise of a partnership with Russia is that Washington and Moscow have similar interests, especially in Syria. While Russian officials frequently insist that ISIS is their target, Russian bombs mainly fall on other opposition groups, who pose the most serious threat to Assad’s regime. According to the State Department, illicit Syrian purchases of ISIS oil are now the Islamic State’s largest source of revenue. Yet while accomplishing little in the fight against ISIS, a partnership with Russia would betray American values and harm those we seek to protect. David Satter of the Hudson Institute warns that strong American ties to the Kremlin would “cripple the Russian opposition, contribute to the propagandizing of the population, and diminish the ability of the U.S. to prevent internal and foreign Russian atrocities.”

Another price of partnership with Russia is that it undermines the rationale for maintaining the sanctions imposed in response to the invasions of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. As Trump observed, “If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?” Republican leaders in Congress—not to mention Democrats—reject the premise of Trump’s argument. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) called for maintaining sanctions while rejected the “relativism” and “moral equivalency” that inform the president’s respect for Vladimir Putin. The position of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was also unequivocal. “These sanctions were imposed because of their behavior in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and now we know they’ve been messing around in our elections as well,” he said. “If there’s any country in the world that doesn’t deserve sanctions relief, it’s Russia.”

While the president currently has the ability to waive or rescind most sanctions on Russia, a bipartisan coalition of senators has introduced the Countering Russian Hostilities Act in order to limit the president’s discretion. This legislation would prevent any legal recognition of Russia’s actions in Ukraine or Georgia, and also codify existing sanctions that were issued via executive orders during the Obama administration. Similar bipartisan legislation, the Russia Sanctions Review Act, was introduced Wednesday.  This measure would allow prohibit the president from lifting sanctions against Russia until Congress ensures that Moscow has indeed ceased its aggression in Ukraine.

These efforts represent the first major attempt by Congress to influence foreign policy in the Trump administration. At the same time, they reflect continuity with the Obama years, when similar bipartisan coalitions challenged the president’s passivity with regard to Russia. The most important outcome of such efforts was the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which authorized sanctions against human rights offenders. In 2016, there was broad bipartisan support for expanding the Act so that it applied to offenders across the globe.  If Trump continues to insist on establishing a cooperative relationship with Russia– even as Putin continues his aggression – then these ad hoc coalitions should become something more: a bipartisan front to counter the White House’s mistaken approach when possible.

Tactics and Principles

The upsurge of fighting in Ukraine and poisoning of Vladmir Kara-Murza are a moment of truth, and should lead the administration to revisit what type of relationship is possible to achieve with Russia, and what it is willing to sacrifice in order to achieve it.  Foreign policy experts in Congress should likewise evaluate the administration’s next moves toward Moscow and prepare to work with their colleagues to secure America’s interests when they are in conflict with the president’s.

This crisis is not just a tactical dilemma. It reflects deeper questions about America’s role in the world and whether we will act in accordance with our liberal democratic principles. The choice here is not between a liberal or conservative approach to national security, but between the lessons of the past 70 years and the willful imitation of our authoritarian rivals, whose foreign policies are driven by fear of their own citizens.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More