European leaders (at least those from “old Europe”) have declined to take the Trump administration’s anti-Russia, pro-NATO statements seriously, but this is not the case in Russia. The Washington Post reports that “in Moscow, euphoria over Trump evaporates” as “Russian politicians, journalists and others express dismay” that “the White House puts daylight between itself and the Kremlin.” (These are the headlines of the Post’s story in the print edition)
The headlines are misleading. There has always been “daylight” between the Trump administration and the Kremlin. President Trump’s position has been that he may or may not get along with Vladimir Putin, not that he plans to operate in lockstep with Russia.
But you get the point. Recent administration pronouncements belie the hysterical view that Trump will sell out Europe to Putin. They put Trump pretty close to the mainstream when it comes to relations with Russia. The Russians understand this.
Which administration statements? The Post’s Andrew Roth offers these very recent examples:
In a single week, Washington has complained that Russia is violating a 1987 nuclear treaty and accused the Kremlin of meddling in foreign elections. Scandal has forced out a national security adviser [note: allegedly] sympathetic to Moscow. Trump’s tone has seemed to harden on issues such as Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula. . . .
[O]n Wednesday, Trump tweeted: “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on Tuesday that the president expected Russia to return Crimea, a position held by the Obama administration and its European allies.
Moreover, “Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said [last week] that Washington should negotiate with Russia from a ‘position of strength.'”
The Russians have responded by making Trump vanish:
President Trump’s face, once ubiquitous on the talk shows and evening news programs that tack closely to the Kremlin’s political agenda, [is] suddenly absent. Gone.
“Like they flipped a switch,” said Alexey Kovalev, a journalist at the Moscow Times who covers Russian state media. . . .
Trump’s sudden disappearance from the airwaves is probably not by chance.
Konstantin Eggert, a television journalist, reported on Wednesday that a colleague at the state media agency VGTRK had received a directive from the station executives: “No more Trump.” Later Bloomberg News, citing unidentified sources, said the Kremlin had told state news agencies to “cut back on their fawning coverage” of Trump.
The Post’s Roth sensibly points out that Putin and his team never subscribed to the notion, peddled by Democrats, Eurocrats, and the American mainstream media, that Trump would be pro-Russia:
Senior Putin administration figures have been far more restrained than Russian lawmakers or other officials in their public statements about Trump, saying they welcomed a change in rhetoric but did not expect a fire sale of the United States’ national interests. . . .
Eggert said he didn’t think the Kremlin was particularly stung by Trump’s increased coolness toward Russia.
“I think Putin has been ready for a long time to accept that things may not change quickly, if at all,” he added.
Nonetheless, the administration’s anti-Russia pronouncements have registered with the Kremlin:
The Kremlin might not have expected a dramatic shift in relations in the early days of the Trump administration, unlike some lawmakers. But that doesn’t mean it expected so little.
“The decision-makers were probably less prone to feel very positive about Trump’s being elected, but nonetheless they certainly had hopes,” [Vladimir] Posner [a prominent Russian television journalist] said. “These hopes certainly seem to be being dashed.”
It seems to me that both camps — the Europeans and the Russians — are construing Trump’s statements in accordance with their interests. The Europeans purport not to take them seriously in the hope of extracting more American concessions, especially with regard to the U.S. position on the European Union, and of helping Trump’s political enemies in the U.S.
The Russians take the statements seriously in the hope of getting the administration to stop making them. However, they don’t denounce Trump in the hope of preventing an escalation.
In my view, the Russians are much closer to the mark. Jim Mattis, perhaps with an assist from Rex Tillerson, seems to have convinced Trump (if he needed convincing) that it’s best to deal with the Russians from a position of strength and that such a position entails a strong, unified NATO.
Instead of shrugging off the administration’s assurances, our NATO partners should demonstrate their unity with America. Otherwise, they may undermine the Mattis strategy and play into Russia’s hands.