We now know with more certainty than we did a couple weeks ago that the Russian government tried to tip the scales in last year’s presidential election toward Donald Trump and that central figures in the Trump campaign were apparently only too happy to accept the assistance. But just what did Russian president Vladimir Putin get for his efforts? Has he received a decent return on his investment, or is Trump backfiring on him?
Here’s a look at some of the policy areas in which Putin likely hoped a Trump victory would advance Russian interests and how well Trump has delivered (whether knowingly or unknowingly). Remember, it’s Putin giving the grades here, so high marks don’t necessarily mean a job well-done.
In backing Trump, perhaps no objective was a bigger motivator for Putin and his oligarchic comrades than the easing of U.S. sanctions on Russia. While the impact of the sanctions on Russia’s ruling class has not been as sharp as it’s been for the underclass, a lot of wealthy Russians (including people who are personally friendly with Putin and Trump) would like to be able to travel, spend money, and do business in the U.S. and Europe more freely again. Trump’s people were signaling to Russia that he was willing to give ground on sanctions before he took office — and possibly before he was elected.
So far, no such luck. The Senate imposed new sanctions on Russia in June to punish the Kremlin for its election interference and, being well aware of Trump’s excessive coziness with Putin, took steps to limit his ability to lift them. Trump has since put pressure on Congress to give him more flexibility in this regard, and his administration is doing what it can to ease the sanctions regime in order to “give collaboration and cooperation a chance,” as his adviser Sebastian Gorka put it on CNN on Thursday. On the other hand, the administration slapped new sanctions on 38 Russian individuals and entities last month over Russia’s incursion in Ukraine.
If Putin has his way, 2016 won’t be the last U.S. election marred by Russian intelligence interference. It would be a shame if the president he helped us elect turned around and made it harder for him to “participate” in the future. Fortunately, Trump can’t admit that our elections are vulnerable to foreign interference without admitting that it helped him win, which his ego won’t allow, so he’s doing nothing to prevent Russia or other hostile actors from taking further cracks at our political parties’ communications or our election infrastructure. Instead, he’s channeling his energy into hunting down the millions of fraudulent U.S. voters that exist only in the fevered minds of some on the right. He and Putin even agreed to set up a joint cybersecurity unit at their G20 meeting, which would be kind of like partnering with Imperial Japan to establish a joint early-warning system for aerial bombardments in the Pacific in 1942. Even Trump himself admits this won’t work.
Trump’s campaign-trail diatribes against our NATO allies for not paying their fair share of defense costs was music to Putin’s ears, as a NATO weakened by wavering American support would give him a freer hand to reassert Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and particularly in the Baltic countries. Trump alarmed allies, blindsided his own national-security team, and surely set Putin’s heart aflutter when he declined to commit to the Article 5 mutual-defense provision in a speech at NATO headquarters in May — only to backtrack and say he would indeed uphold it in a press conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis early last month. Clearly, his military and national-security staff set him straight in the interim. Meanwhile, other NATO countries are boosting their defense spending this year, for which Trump is taking too much credit. This is looking more and more like one campaign pledge the president won’t be able to fulfill.
If Putin can’t have a weaker NATO, a fractured European Union might be the next best thing — hence Russia’s (unsuccessful) efforts to help the Euroskeptical rightist Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election in the same way he helped Trump in ours. On the whole, Trump does not instill much confidence in European leaders: Alienating Europe appears to be among his policy goals, and he now has Germany worried that he will start a trade war. On the other hand, Trump’s hostility to transatlantic cooperation has Europe seeking other partners, such as Japan, and it may be unwittingly making Europe stronger by helping Europeans appreciate the value of their union and the need for self-reliance. He’s also not abandoning the U.S. commitment to European security vis-à-vis Russia, as evinced by his agreement to sell Patriot air-defense missiles to Poland earlier this month.
Russia’s objectives in Syria remain as they have always been: to keep Bashar Al-Assad in power, Islamists out of power, and the Russian naval facility in Tartus open. Trump’s frustration with the Syrian stalemate and hesitation to oust Assad suited Putin much better than Clinton’s plans for more direct engagement.
After their G20 meeting, Trump and Putin announced that the U.S., Russia, Israel, and Jordan had brokered a cease-fire in southwest Syria, which took effect last Sunday. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson maintains that the U.S.’s long-term goal for Syria is for Assad to step down, the new Syria strategy that emerged from the meeting would leave him in power, at least for the time being. The U.S. will limit its efforts in Syria to counterterrorism operations and defeating ISIS, deemphasizing its assistance to moderate Syrian rebel groups. The cease-fire involves establishing four “de-escalation zones” designated by Russia in coordination with Turkey and Iran, which the Syrian opposition sees as a ploy to freeze frontlines and give Assad’s forces an advantage. Critics have called the cease-fire plan unenforceable, have said it ignores Iran’s role in the conflict, and have alleged the plan entails a capitulation to Russia’s agenda from which Iran will emerge the winner. In short, it looks like the shots in Syria are now being called from Moscow, not Washington.
Corrrection: A previous version of this post said President Trump spoke at a press conference in Romania. Trump and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis took questions at the White House. We regret the error.