war on the rocks

How Putin Benefits from Trump’s Foreign Policy

March 9, 2017

From the campaign trail to the White House, Donald Trump’s views on Russia have fueled major concerns. These have only intensified due to allegations about shady conversations between Russian officials and members of Team Trump. But in a widely read article in The American Interest, “Trump is not sounding like a Russian mole,” Walter Russell Mead sought to provide some perspective to ease these fears. Trump’s policies, he argued, are not those of a president who seeks to serve Russian interests. Mead wrote:

A Trump administration is going to be four years of hell for Russia: a massive American doubling down on shale production along with a major military buildup. Trump is, in other words, a nightmare for Putin and a much, much bigger threat to Putin’s goals than President Obama ever was or wanted to be.

In a tweet-storm making a similar argument, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute wrote that Vladimir Putin “thrived on the predictable restraint of Obama but Trump’s competitive nature and unpredictability are deeply discomfiting to him.”

Mead and Doran raise a reasonable question that merits discussion quite apart from the matter of whether Trump has ties to Moscow or not. Are Trump’s policies more aligned with Putin’s interests than those of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, or those on offer from his competitor in the election, Hillary Clinton? There is reason to believe that they are. Let’s start with Trump’s Europe policy, which Mead does not mention.

Putin’s objective in Europe is to weaken or dismantle the Western order and replace it with a spheres of influence system in which Russia enjoys a much greater say over Eastern Europe. Putin’s primary target in pursuit of this goal has been the European Union, not NATO. After all, it was the E.U. partnership with Ukraine that prompted his intervention in 2013.

Trump is almost perfectly aligned with Putin on the European Union. He is the first president to suggest that the body is not in America’s interest. He said that the European Union was created “to beat the United States when it comes to making money,” and is now “basically a vehicle for Germany.” The president and his advisors have close ties to pro-Putin political figures in Europe, including Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen.

On NATO, Trump has not yet said the words that every president before him has uttered, which is that the U.S. security guarantee, Article 5, is rock solid. His vice president and defense secretary have, but he has not. The most Trump could bring himself to say was to finally express general support for NATO in his address to the joint session of Congress although it was immediately followed by a “but” linking U.S. support to defense spending.

The lack of an explicit endorsement of Article V grows ever more conspicuous. Ambiguity about the president’s support for Article 5 creates strategic space that Putin can exploit. There were similar doubts about Obama’s credibility on security commitments after the Syria red line and Crimea. He prevented these doubts from undermining NATO by going to Estonia and delivering full-throated support for the U.S. security guarantee. As long as Trump resists this, NATO’s credibility will suffer despite the best efforts of his cabinet.

The Trump administration has also weakened U.S. support for human rights and democracy overseas. The president promised not to seek political reform in Russia or elsewhere while the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, downgraded the release of his department’s annual report on human rights. Putin always found U.S. support for human rights and democracy a threat to his interests and will be buoyed by any dilution or weakening of it.  It may also strengthen authoritarian forces in Eastern Europe which Putin will also welcome.

In January Trump  suggested he wanted to remove sanctions on Russia. There were reports that his administration intended to do this in an executive order but this was abandoned in the face of fierce congressional opposition. Putin was no doubt disappointed, but he will be relieved that Trump is extremely unlikely to support a toughening of sanctions on Russia as Sen. McCain, Sen. Graham, and many Democrats have argued for.

By Trump’s own admission, any shortfall in reaching out to Russia is not his intention. It is because of domestic opposition and media pressure. In his press conference of Feb. 16, 2017, he said:

I would love to be able to get along with Russia.… But — but it’s possible I won’t be able to get along with Putin…the false, horrible, fake reporting makes it much harder to make a deal with Russia. And probably Putin said “you know.” He’s sitting behind his desk and he’s saying “you know, I see what’s going on in the United States, I follow it closely. It’s going to be impossible for President Trump to ever get along with Russia because of all the pressure he’s got with this fake story.”

So, what of the Mead-Doran case? The military buildup they mention is an illusion. The defense budget increase is only $18 billion, or 3 percent, more than President Obama’s final budget and it is more than offset by cuts to national security spending in the State Department and foreign aid. Trump’s troubled relationship with the intelligence community could also have a debilitating impact on America’s intelligence gathering capabilities.

Fracking may make the United States less dependent on foreign energy sources but it will not necessarily reduce the price. Other factors come into play. The price of oil is currently $53 a barrel, up from $30 a year ago and up 16 percent from Election Day. Higher energy prices are great news for Russia. As for the benefits of Trump being unpredictable, it is one thing to be unpredictable about going on the military offensive, but he is unpredictable about where and whether he will be defensive. This is not a recipe for effective deterrence.

Finally, as Max Boot has pointed out, all policy is relative. Putin was facing the prospect of a Clinton administration, which would have been the toughest he has ever faced. Clinton despises Putin and would have had new reasons to push back against him. If nothing else, he has avoided that.

None of this means there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia or that Trump himself has connections to Putin. It does not mean that Trump won’t do things that Putin does not like. And it doesn’t mean that Putin won’t turn on Trump. For instance, Putin may try to exploit Trump’s ambiguity on Article 5 to weaken NATO permanently. But it does mean that it makes no sense to cite Trump’s supposedly anti-Russia policies as evidence that Putin has nothing to gain from his presidency.

 

Thomas Wright is a fellow and director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. His book, All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power, will be published in May by Yale University Press.