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Wed Jun 26, 2019, 09:04 AM

Trump's Confused Russia Policy Is a Boon for Putin

And it isnít helped by the imminent departure of several staff with expertise on the subject.

By ANDREW S. WEISS June 25, 2019

Andrew S. Weiss is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment. During the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, he worked on Russian affairs at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Defense Department.

The next Trump-Putin meeting in Osaka, Japan is only days away, but the White House is maintaining radio silence about what it hopes to achieve there. Meanwhile, three senior voices with experience of dealing with Russia, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford, the NSCís in-house Russia expert Fiona Hill, and, reportedly, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, are all on their way out.

These developments are not linked, but they tell us a lot about how Russia policy actually works in the Trump administration.

The conventional wisdom has long held that Trumpís bizarre brand of Russian policy (which he invariably describes as ďgetting along with RussiaĒ) doesnít matter all that much because the rest of the U.S. government is taking a tougher line on the Kremlinís misbehavior. When it comes to sanctions, military cooperation with Ukraine, or cyber operations against Russian critical infrastructure, this argument goes, largely sensible day-to-day decisions are being made.

Experienced professionals like Ambassador Huntsman, General Dunford, and Hill have focused on reestablishing reliable lines of communication with Russian counterparts that can be used to manage discrete pieces of business. In Dunfordís case, a secure hotline with Russian General Staff chief Valeriy Gerasimov has helped reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of unintentional military clashes in Syriaís crowded battlespace. All three have tried, with remarkable patience and firmness, to channel their bossís undiminished desire to strike a grand bargain with Putin in a more realistic direction and to focus his energies on contending with a Kremlin that keeps ratcheting up the pressure rather than seeking a new modus vivendi.

Yet none of this obscures the fact that there is still no overarching Russia strategy in place, let alone the discipline to implement it. The Administrationís actual day to day policy on Russia is mostly reactive, bordering on incoherent. Sure, thereís lots of attention on the appearance of countering the Kremlinís malign activities, but little sustained focus on how best to manage an adversarial relationship with Moscow over the long haul. Tough talk on issues like Venezuela or U.S. election meddling has hardly changed the Kremlinís risk calculus. With different parts of the presidentís team marching off in different directions, the result is a mishmash of competing approaches that donít add up to an effective policy.


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