The recent poisoning of a former Russian spy and chemical attack in Syria has pushed President Trump to shift his previously somewhat soft tactics towards Russia. Trump not only approved the toughest economic sanctions on Russia, but he also warned Russian President about a possible US missile strike on Syria. On the one hand, many Americans believe that Trump’s message to Russia erases the questions about the connection between his 2016 presidential campaign and the foreign government. On the other hand, the rising tension between the two countries has marked a severe distrust between the two leaders and has outlined their differences over the conflict in Syria.
Many foreign policy experts believe that Trump’s Twitter war is a wrong and dangerous way to deal with a country like Russia. Moreover, if Vladimir Putin feels the need to respond more aggressively to the U.S., he will not use social media to warn about his plans and will not back off. He will strike back. However, it is still clear that both Putin and Trump hope to improve the relationship between the United States and Russia and they might have a chance to do it during a possible Putin visit to the White House that was proposed by President Trump during a phone call earlier in March.
Trump’s new tough line on Russia raises risks
In what has been a dramatic shift of tone, Donald Trump has in the past week ratcheted up pressure on Russia.
After spending the first 15 months of his administration facing criticism for being too soft on the country, the US president has changed tack following the poisoning of an ex-Russia spy in the UK and the alleged use of chemical weapons by Syria.
Last week, the White House announced its toughest sanctions against Russia to date — a move Mr Trump did not block. This week, Mr Trump turned to Twitter to attack Mr Putin for his support of Bashar al-Assad and to advise Russian forces in Syria to be “ready” for US missiles.
Mr Trump’s rhetoric might earn him points at home, where he continues to be hounded about questions over his 2016 campaign’s connections to Russia. Yet some Russia experts warn the president is playing a dangerous game, risking a military confrontation between the two countries.
Daniel Fried, a former ambassador who co-ordinated sanctions policy for the US government during the Obama administration, said Mr Trump’s tweets had put the US “in [the] same chest-thumping rhetorical space with Putin”.
“Never thought we’d go full Khrushchev-table pounding, but here we are and it could hurt us,” said Mr Fried, referring to Mr Khrushchev’s 1960 shoe-banging protest at the UN.
Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Mr Trump’s language was dangerous from a foreign policy perspective.
“The comments about ‘Russia: beware my missiles are coming’, are exactly the wrong way to talk about the use of force, particularly the wrong way to talk to a foreign government which has a huge military presence in Syria,” Mr Weiss said.
It is expected the US will try to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia in Syria, in much the same way it gave Moscow advanced notice before it conducted a limited air strike in Syria last year.
However, the US and Russia have already clashed in Syria once this year when an Assad-backed group that included Russian contractors fired at a US base near Deir al-Zour, prompting the US to fire back.
James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to the Middle East who served as George Bush’s deputy national security adviser, said Mr Trump’s tweets risked “painting Putin into a corner”. If any Russians are hurt, even by accident, Moscow could respond.
“If you are not careful, you will bring in the Russians,” he warned.
Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington, said Mr Putin would likely face increased pressure to respond more aggressively to the US. US-Russian relations, he argued, were the worst they had been since either the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 or the Berlin Crisis in 1961.
“I think we’re dealing with a very serious situation,” he said. “I’m sure neither side wants a major nuclear confrontation, but we know from history that once you start a war it may be very difficult to control escalation.”
In Moscow, Mr Putin’s hopes for improved relations appeared to be fading even before the recent tension. Last month, he devoted almost half of a two-hour state-of-the-nation address to bragging about new nuclear weapons he claimed would make Russia invincible.
However, in recent days, Mr Putin has shown some restraint, despite stark warnings from Russia’s military leadership and some Russian diplomats.
“The global situation . . . is getting more and more chaotic,” he said at a reception with foreign diplomats on Wednesday. “Still, we hope that common sense will in the end prevail and international relations will return to a constructive track and that the entire international system becomes more stable and predictable.”
So far, officials in Moscow and Washington said there was no indication Mr Trump would withdraw his invitation for Mr Putin to visit the White House for a summit.
Inside the US administration, some say Mr Trump still believes he can work with Russia, in a way that his predecessors failed to, by forging a personal relationship with Mr Putin. People close to the administration say its current strategy is imposing costs on Russia, making Moscow realise there will be a co-ordinated western pushback.
Bryan O’Toole, a former senior official at the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces US sanctions, summarised the shift by saying the administration appeared to be in the process of a “rethink” towards Russia that was comprised of “selective engagement and selective pushback”.
“What I was hoping was that the administration and Congress would hold [Trump’s] baser instincts [on Russia] until Putin really pissed him off,” Mr O’Toole said. “And that seems to have happened.”
Source: The Financial Times, Courtney Weaver, Katrina Manson and Kathrin Hille, April 11, 2018. Photo credit to The Associate Press.