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On Russia, Donald Trump’s Bluster Is No Match for Putin

Jewel Samad/Getty

Donald Trump is the latest Republican presidential candidate to falsely assess the impact of President Barack Obama’s engagement in Ukraine. The former Soviet nation is in the middle of a bloody proxy war with Russia that started last year, after Ukrainians revolted against and overthrew the corrupt government of former president Viktor Yanukovych—a staunch ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin who is now enjoying refuge in Russia.

According to Trump, the president isn’t doing enough to help support Ukraine defend itself against the military offensive of Russian-backed rebels who have taken over the eastern part of the country and want independence from Kyiv. So far more than 6,000 have died in the conflict that Ukraine is struggling to stop and Putin denies Moscow has anything involvement in. The White House, Kyiv, Brussels and independent media accounts have proven, however, that not only are Russian troops in eastern Ukraine supporting the rebels but that they are participating in the fighting. The president, with cooperation from Europe, has responded with a series of sanctions against Moscow that have proven devastating to the Russian economy. The ruble has been taking a drumming all year and the country’s GDP is expected to see a steep contraction.

Trump still doesn’t think this is enough.

“Our president is not strong; so far, we have all lip service,” he said via video link during the Yalta European Strategy conference in Kyiv last Friday. “Part of the problem that Ukraine has with the United States is that Putin does not respect our president whatsoever.”

President Obama’s sanctions-based approach to punishing Russia over its invasion of Ukraine has been anything but “lip service,” despite what Trump or Republicans in Congress claim. Russia’s economy has taken some serious hits. Because of sanctions, Russia could lose nine percent of its gross domestic product in the medium term; for the year, the IMF expects the Russian economy to contract by 3.4 percent this year before seeing any growth in 2016. Putin’s counter-sanctions banning western food imports backfired, causing Russian food prices to increase more than 20 percent for 12 months up to July when harvesting season staved off the hit. The ruble has weakened against the dollar and the euro to its lowest value since February. Russian troops are still in eastern Ukraine supporting anti-government rebels, but western sanctions are putting intense pressure the country’s economy.

Trump’s calling the president weak on Russia parrots similar Republican language from last year. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said an interview with Fox News in February that Putin sized up President Obama as a “weak leader” who is unconcerned about our national security.

“What we have got in Putin is a man with a strategic vision and an autocratic mentality, in Obama we've got a weak, inattentive president who doesn't, not only doesn't know what America's interests are,” Bolton said. “I don't think particularly cares about American national security.”

Former vice president Dick Cheney said on Face The Nation there was “no question” that Putin views Obama as weak. When asked about Obama’s response to Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine, Senator Lindsey Graham said, “We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.” Obama’s sanctions prove otherwise.

Russia admitted in January that Western censure has lost the country $40 and $50 billion. Recently, Russian managers of lucrative energy projects in the Arctic Circle were reportedly scrambling for financing because sanctions have significantly cut them off from Western banks. The Kremlin is more isolated than ever. This all reflects President Obama’s commitment to building international coalitions to address threats, as opposed to pursuing unilateral military action—like the ones taken during George W. Bush’s presidency, which started an unending war in the Middle East and is responsible for the death of thousands of Americans and Iraqis.

President Obama, unlike Trump, is aware that the U.S. cannot single-handedly influence geopolitical outcomes in Moscow without cooperation from Europe. In June, the European Union extended sanctions against Russia until at least the beginning of 2016. Moreover, the  price of Russian oil is falling; because 50 percent of Russia’s budget comes from oil and gas, the timing of the extension came at a terrible time for Putin. Though many hawks in Congress would prefer a more directly lethal intervention, Russia’s economy is contracting as it hemorrhages money.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, is a member of Congress who might prefer less delicate actions than sanctions. He’s been a consistent critic of President Obama’s Russia policy; recently on Face The Nation, Rubio lamented Russia’s role in the nuclear deal with Iran. And in a Washington Post column last year, Rubio wrote that U.S. sanctions should include visa restrictions for Putin and his political and business allies. He also recommended that Russia’s membership to all global organizations not linked to resolving the Ukraine conflict should be revoked.

While there are a lot of problems with Rubio’s policy recommendations, at least you can tell he has thought them over. With Trump, not so much. His tough talk is perfect for reality television, but would earn him no respect from the Russians at the U.N. Security Council or at the G-8. Nor would it evoke fear in someone like Putin whose political adversaries end up dead instead of fired. Putin is the same man who, in 2002, invited a French journalist to Moscow to undergo a circumcision after he asked the president about the war in Chechnya during a press conference. Which is to say: Putin is a real life badass. Trump just plays one on television.

U.S.-Russia relations are the worst they have been been since the Soviet Union fell, in 1991. For the first time since then, central European leaders are readying for Russian tanks to roll into their territory. Poland is bolstering its armed forces and the Baltic states are already engaging in military exercises in preparation for a possible invasion. They have every reason to do so. Putin’s geopolitical expansionism in Europe is becoming more aggressive, and measured responses to his unpredictable behavior must be considered on a daily basis.

So far, President Obama’s reactions to Russian aggression are the most robust of any sitting president since the end of the Cold War. It’s important to remember George W. Bush’s non-response to Putin’s invasion of Georgia back in 2008—but I don’t recall Trump or any other Republican referring to Bush as “weak.”  

In addition to sanctioning Moscow over violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the U.S. sent 300 paratroopers to Ukraine in April to train its forces fighting Russia-backed rebels in the east. The Pentagon announced in June that it was sending tanks and armor to NATO allies in eastern Europe to assure them that the U.S. would help fend off further Russian encroachment.

There have been calls for the president to arm Kyiv with lethal aid, which I support, but so far he has resisted because, many believe, such a move could potentially provoke Putin into escalating the war to a level neither the U.S. nor Brussels is prepared to counter in a timely matter. It is a very legitimate consideration that should be seen as cautious, and not weak.

Americans do not have an appetite for sending their troops into any more unnecessary wars, especially to a country few people in the U.S. care about. Economic sanctions don’t have the same brash, made-for-television entertainment value as pontificating about foreign policy on a battleship (like Trump did yesterday), but they are pressuring Putin to reconsider if Ukraine is worth the blows its economy is enduring. Real life doesn’t look good on television. That’s why we don’t take reality TV for anything more than what it is: fake.

This article has been updated to correct the following factual changes: The victims of the Ukraine conflict were not mostly women and children; and second, that the International Monetary Fund expects the Russian economy to contract 3.4 percent this year before the country sees any growth.