For most of 2018, it was conventional wisdom among Russia experts to say, knowingly, that Moscow was disappointed and more than a bit perplexed by Donald Trump. Russia wants acceptance of its annexation of Crimea and recognition of its security primacy over Ukraine and Russia’s western border region, but it hasn’t gotten any of that. Russia would also like to see an end to economic sanctions imposed over Ukraine; however, thanks to the U.S. Congress, it’s now subject to more sanctions. More broadly, Russia seeks recognition — in Syria, in Europe, and globally — of its status as a top-tier power alongside Washington and Beijing. Instead, Putin is endlessly linked to Trump’s clownish behavior on the world stage and disdain for democracy, while China’s President Xi gets to pose as the defender of norms and international cooperation.
Moscow is likely still perplexed, but it got a whole Advent calendar worth of presents from Trump this month. The departure of Defense Secretary James Mattis is a huge boost to Moscow’s unrelenting campaign to weaken and undermine NATO. For the last two years, Mattis has personified U.S. commitment to NATO — traveling where Trump wouldn’t go, saying the things Trump wouldn’t say, and, if we are honest, letting Americans and allies alike continue to believe in a commitment that Trump manifestly does not share.
That security blanket is gone now. And the confusion and anxiety we’re seeing across Europe in response is exactly what Moscow hoped to produce with its meddling in the first place.
Then there’s the policy shift that led to Mattis’s resignation: Trump’s abrupt troop pullouts from Syria and (possibly) Afghanistan. For years, Moscow has wanted Washington to have less influence in Afghanistan, which has floated on the edge of Russia’s security reach for centuries. And for even longer, Moscow has wanted to have a voice in the security affairs of the Middle East, and to be recognized as a first-tier player there. Its presence in Syria, and its military support for both the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian militias that support him, is expensive and risky. With Washington gone, those activities will be a little less treacherous. And it will become more apparent that the player who can help regional actors get what they want — and honor their long-term commitments — is Putin, and not an American president.
Whether you thought U.S. engagement in Syria should have been bigger, or should never have happened, the way Trump proceeded with the withdrawal announcement was a catastrophe. Our European allies who also have troops on the ground — and more importantly the Kurdish and Arab forces who have lost tens of thousands of soldiers fighting ISIS alongside U.S. troops — got no warning of the decision. That means no time to make a new plan to defend their territories without the U.S. or make deals to safeguard civilian lives. Tens of thousands of families who had moved to areas under the protection of U.S. forces are now at risk. That is potentially a death sentence for them — and it’s definitely destroyed the credibility of promises from U.S. leaders for years to come.
Moscow got one more big win this month that you may have missed. The Treasury Department said it plans to to lift sanctions on the business empire of Oleg Deripaska, one of Moscow’s biggest oligarchs … who happens to be closely linked to former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort. The announcement comes after intense lobbying by Europeans and volatility in commodity markets. Deripaska’s aluminum company, Rusal, is among the world’s largest non-Chinese suppliers. And Trump’s tariff war with China, including a 10 percent surcharge on aluminum imports, has spooked markets. Under the deal, Deripaska will reduce his stake in several of his companies to under 50 percent, and he personally will remain on the sanctions list. But despite these efforts to prevent Deripaska from influencing the companies, he will still be the largest single shareholder, and some other shares will be controlled by his allies. Democratic congressman Lloyd Doggett, who has accused the Trump administration of going easy on Rusal in the past, said the move amounted to “sliding another big gift under Vladimir Putin’s Christmas tree.”
It appears that much like our allies, Putin was surprised by all these gifts from the Trump administration. At his end-of-the-year news conference, Putin said he didn’t know what the pullout from Syria means, but he couldn’t resist tweaking Washington, noting the U.S. has “been in Afghanistan 17 years and almost every year they say they are pulling out.” Reporters said reactions in Russia ranged from “ill-concealed gloating” to “suspicions that it’s all a smokescreen for some secret U.S. moves.”
In the long run, there’s every reason to believe these withdrawals are going to prove as dubious a win for Moscow as the troop presences were for Washington. In Afghanistan in particular, Russia ought to be careful what it wishes for, lest extremist groups in Afghanistan find energy to target Russians or otherwise destabilize the nearby Central Asian states.
For much of the last two years, close observers of Trump foreign policy have bent over backwards not to attribute every move to puppet masters in Moscow, for three reasons: because we have a professional distaste for conspiracy theories, because we didn’t think that is how Putin and his intelligence professionals would operate, and because we simply couldn’t imagine someone being that obvious.
For the record, I still don’t believe these helter-skelter policies are being devised and run from Russia. Nor do I believe that it’s smart to have a Russia policy that is nothing but confrontation. But the fact is, we’re ending the year with an arms control treaty that Moscow disliked on its way out and thousands of American troops set to leave places Moscow didn’t want them to be. Meanwhile, ever-more Russian troops are on the Ukrainian border and Moscow still holds Ukrainian sailors it snatched in the Strait of Kerch last month. Institutions that sustain U.S. values are weaker, while Putin’s claim to being a regional and global decider via his undemocratic methods is stronger.
We may never know the whole truth about Trump’s relationship with Russia. But this all raises an interesting question: to paraphrase Ronald Reagan (who pursued nuclear disarmament even as he prosecuted the Cold War relentlessly), is Putin better off than he was two years ago?