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The Dangerous Incoherence of Trump’s Russia Policy

The president wants a partnership with Vladimir Putin, but his national security leaders are pursuing aggressive containment.


In 2014, the Republican Congress passed the loftily named Ukrainian Freedom Support Act, which permitted the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law, but as The Washington Post reported, he “never authorized large commercial or government sales, a move widely seen as a de facto decision not to provide lethal weapons to the Ukraine military.” That policy has now changed, as President Donald Trump has approved a large commercial sale of weapons to the former Soviet state, where the fight against Russia-backed militants in the east has intensified lately. “The move was heavily supported by top Trump national security Cabinet officials and Congress,” the Post reported, “but may complicate President Trump’s stated ambition to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin.” A senior congressional official told the paper, “We have crossed the Rubicon, this is lethal weapons and I predict more will be coming.”

Some conservatives are arguing that the arms sale proves that Trump didn’t collude with the Russian government to interfere in last year’s presidential election. “NO PUPPET” ran an exultant Twitchy headline.

In reality, the decision on arming Ukraine illustrates something different: The United States has two wildly divergent foreign policies toward Russia. Trump is pursuing a policy of conciliation, while the national security establishment, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have pursued a policy of aggressive containment. Trump sees Russia as a potential ally, while many in his cabinet and in Congress consider Russia a rival that is actively threatening American democracy. This contradictory policy could send mixed signals, leading to war.

On Monday, the Trump administration released its national security strategy, which portrayed Russia and China as rival superpowers. The document made the argument shared by centrist Democrats and Republicans, that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government tried to subvert American democracy:

A democracy is only as resilient as its people. An informed and engaged citizenry is the fundamental requirement for a free and resilient nation. For generations, our society has protected free press, free speech, and free thought. Today, actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies. Adversaries target media, political processes, financial networks, and personal data. The American public and private sectors must recognize this and work together to defend our way of life.

And yet, in a speech introducing this document, Trump veered off of his prepared remarks and spoke about the need to “build a great partnership” with Russia and China. Trump also described a friendly conversation he had with Putin, who thanked the United States for recently helping to thwart a planned terrorist attack against Russia by the Islamic State. “That’s a great thing, and the way it’s supposed to work,” Trump said.

As Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, told Politico, there was a “surreal” disjunction between the explicit strategy and the president’s gloss. “The National Security Strategy and the president’s speech to launch it were worlds apart,” Wright observed. “The strategy described the Russian and Chinese challenge in great detail, but Trump barely mentioned them. Instead he made an impassioned plea for partnership with Putin, demanded allies directly reimburse the United States for protection provided, and blamed the country’s ills on immigrants and trade deals.” A White House spokesman acknowledged that he couldn’t say if Trump had read the National Security Strategy.

The divide between Trump and his own administration grows out of Trump’s failure to staff his administration with ideological loyalists. The figures who might have pursued Trump’s America First foreign policy—Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka—were all pushed out of the White House, leaving administrative power in the hands of more conventional Republicans. But Trump seems to be wedded to parts of his original foreign policy agenda, including the push for a partnership with Russia.

The divergence between Trump and his national security staff could lead both sides to become even more extreme. To balance Trump’s conciliatory words toward Putin, Mattis and Tillerson might feel the need to take more hardline positions, if only to reassure America’s European allies. And Trump, to counter this, might praise Putin even more effusively.

Because many Democrats are so invested in the Russia collusion narrative, they haven’t really taken note of Trump’s two-faced foreign policy. Former Hillary Clinton adviser Zac Petkanas, for instance, has welcomed the new aggressiveness towards Ukraine:

The wisdom of selling lethal weapons to Ukraine can be disputed. But having two foreign policies toward Russia is inherently destabilizing. One risk is that Putin, faced with this confusion, bets that Trump’s conciliatory approach is dominant.

Putin is an adventurist, as seen in the Russian invasion of Crimea. Given Trump’s campaign grousing about protecting “countries that most of the people in this room have never even heard of and we end up in world war three,” Putin may feel he can continue to bully Ukraine to leave the western alliance—perhaps, as in Crimea, using covert aid to local insurgents. Such a move would be reckless, but Putin is inclined to take advantage of any opening he sees. And yet, if Putin did so in Ukraine, he’d likely discover that Trump is all talk and that U.S. policy is guided by the more hawkish national security establishment.

Another tinderbox is Syria, where again, Putin’s adventurism clashes with American military strategy. As CNN reported on Thursday, “The Pentagon has accused Russia of intentionally violating an agreement intended to prevent accidents in the skies over Syria, following a recent unsafe encounter between US F-22s and Russian Su-25 jets.” This near-miss between fighter jets is only one of a series of incidents showing Russia’s disregard for its air-sharing “deconfliction” agreement with the United States in Syria. “Amid these multiple alleged Russian crossings of the deconfliction boundary,” CNN continued, “the U.S. military has expressed concern it might have to shoot down a Russian aircraft over Syria if the Russian plane is seen as a threat to U.S. or coalition forces fighting ISIS.”

This tension over airspace takes place as the Trump administration, in a national security strategy document, officially declares Russia as a rival, and Trump continues to assuage Putin. If a crisis erupts, there’s no clarity as to which of these two policies will govern. But it’s clear that such uncertainty will only make the crisis worse.