The saga of the alleged Russian connection to Donald Trump’s campaign is once again dominating the news — largely because of Trump’s own actions in abruptly firing FBI director James Comey and admitting that the dismissal was related to the Trump-Russia investigation. Yet amid accusations of abuse of power, important questions linger about the relationship between the United States and Russia.
Worries about Trump’s overly chummy stance toward the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin were somewhat defused when Trump reversed his skepticism about NATO and took a tough stance on Russian ally Bashar Assad of Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Moscow for a chilly reception.
But now, a new thaw?
Take Trump’s strange Oval Office meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov — closed to American journalists but not to a Russian foreign ministry photographer who also happens to work for the state news agency, Tass.
When Tass released photos of Trump and Lavrov laughing it up — with Sergey Kislyak, Russian ambassador and rumored spymaster, whose presence the White House had not disclosed — some staffers were dismayed. Yet Trump tweeted separate side-by-side photos of himself with Lavrov and with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, adding, “#Let’sMakePeace!”
Some note that while Trump and Lavrov both were standing, Klimkin stands deferentially next to a seated Trump. The visual symbolism and childish hashtag aside, urging Ukraine and Russia to “make peace,” is like asking mugger and victim to stop fighting. Russia still sponsors a guerilla-mercenary war in eastern Ukraine in blatant disregard of agreements signed in 2014-15. While Trump’s meeting with Lavrov reportedly included reminders to respect those agreements, words are cheap.
At the same time, Trump was back to crediting the Kremlin with good intentions in Syria and wanting to end the “horrible killing.” There is no more talk of removing Assad — and Russia is once again allowed to play peace broker and push a role for Iran in policing Syrian “de-escalation zones,” whose establishment has banned U.S. planes from the country’s airspace.
Meanwhile, Trump’s new devotion to NATO has not prompted strong criticism of Russia’s apparent attempt to swing the election in France by hacking the emails of Kremlin-critical Emmanuel Macron. And then there was the unusual White House reaction to North Korea’s latest missile launch — a statement that opened with a nod to Russian security concerns.
Is the friendship with Russia back on? Predicting anything for this White House is tricky. Whatever Trump says today might be forgotten next week. There is the added factor of differences in perspective and policy within the administration, which includes Russia hawks such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.
But the president’s own volatility may, as it were, trump everything else. And questions about Russia’s role in the election will probably continue to affect the White House-Kremlin relationship in unpredictable ways, perhaps making U.S. concessions less likely, perhaps pushing Trump to defy domestic critics.
There is certainly a place in U.S. policy for productive cooperation with Russia; trying to involve Moscow in curbing North Korea might be smart. But when behavior at the top is so erratic that it could compromise sensitive sources, the payoff loses value. The Washington Post reported that Trump revealed highly classified information to the two top Russian officials that could jeopardize a source of intelligence in the Islamic State. Such ineptitude could bode ill both for U.S. containment of Russia’s global aggression and for pragmatic cooperation.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.