In remarks for his confirmation hearing, Mike Pompeo, United States President Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, said “soft policy” towards Russia is “now over”. What he means by “now” is the interesting bit.
A narrative emerging in the US holds that Trump has just recently turned tough on Russia. However, one look at the long chronology of his administration’s hostility towards Vladimir Putin’s Russia should dispel that.
It includes the early appointments of Russia hawks such as America’s United Nations representative Nikki Haley and Central Intelligence Agency director Pompeo; the first ever US missile strike on Putin ally Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s military installation in April 2017; the abrupt closure of three Russian diplomatic facilities in the US in late August (which Russia described as “blatantly hostile”); the decision to send lethal weapons to Ukraine in December; a deadly counterattack on a group of Russian mercenaries in Syria in February. Trump can blow hot and cold on Putin and Russia in tweets, just as he did in the course of one day on Wednesday, first threatening Russia with “nice and new and ‘smart’” missiles and then saying there’s “no reason” for the US-Russia relationship to be so bad. But Americans should be used to this by now. He, like many habitual social network users, employs language to communicate emotions rather than precise messages.
The missile tweet says “I’m angry” and the seemingly conciliatory tweet telegraphs “I’m flustered”. What matters with Trump are actions or, rather, transactions. And on that level, he hasn’t been a pro-Russian president from the start, as those who alleged without any evidence that the Kremlin had some kind of leverage over Trump seemed to think.
The more recent moves — the biggest ever expulsion of Russian diplomats from the US following the poisoning in the UK of a former Russian double agent, the harshest ever sanctions imposed on a Russian billionaire (aluminium tycoon Oleg Deripaska), fresh anti-Russian appointments (Pompeo’s move to Secretary of State and John Bolton’s elevation to National Security Adviser) — merely continue this line of actions. They constitute an escalation but not a policy shift.
Pompeo was referring to “years of soft policy” on Russia under President Obama, which ended with Trump’s election. And indeed, Obama pointedly rejected all the hostile actions that Trump has taken — except hawkish appointments, which only led to the appointees’ frustration. Pompeo’s “now” is the Trump presidency itself.
The anti-Kremlin tenor of Trump’s presidency is often written down to the Republican establishment’s influence, to the advice of “grown men” in the administration. Trump rarely seeks advice or heeds it if it’s volunteered anyhow; his Russian policy hasn’t been imposed from outside.
The US president wants reportable wins. He doesn’t, however, work quietly to obtain them. He demands to be handed them because they’re due to him as the man in the ultimate position of strength. Trump appeared to have expected a more compliant Putin ever since the Russian president’s remark that Trump is a “colourful” and “talented” individual was mistranslated as “brilliant”. “So far, we’re off to a good start,” candidate Trump commented in 2016. “He said ‘Trump is a genius,’ OK?”
Putin, however, has provided no gifts and no wins. If he ever had an interest in Trump’s victory, it was for the havoc it would wreak on the US establishment. He, too, always negotiates from a position of strength, even when this stance masks actual weakness.
For Trump, business and politics is a macho contest. It was obvious during the campaign that he seeks to establish his male dominance by patronising his opponents and commenting on their purported manly shortfalls. He’s done the same with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. He’s doing it with Putin, too. “Russia needs us to help with their economy, something that would be very easy to do,” he tweeted on Wednesday — a phrase calculated to offend.
Trump’s machismo fits in well with Republicans’ traditional Russia hawkishness. The party isn’t dragging a reluctant Trump along. Nor is Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s collusion investigation (which has, so far, unearthed no trace of collusion) making Trump act out on Russia as forcefully as he has: He knows he can’t make Mueller go away by bombing Syria or expelling diplomats. Trump is out to prove that he, not Putin, is the 800-pound gorilla, the alpha male.
The logic of a macho confrontation is that it escalates to a fight unless one side or the other backs down. Putin, however, has a talent for stretching out conflicts he cannot win outright. He’ll use the hostilities to avoid being treated as a lame duck president in what, constitutionally, is his last term in office, and to further his long-standing dream of returning exported Russian capital to the country. Putin’s advantage is that he automatically outlasts Trump if the president isn’t re-elected in 2020.
More than ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US and Russia need to set the boundaries of their hostile engagement. The festering macho conflict will ensure that the two nations will clash over and over again. One big test of whether there are any grown men in the war rooms of both Washington and Moscow is whether any US or allied action against Al Assad is coordinated with Russia on a military level, as it had happened with last year’s missile attack. Let’s hope so.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti.