Trump’s Russian Schizophrenia – POLITICO Magazine
The United States should send arms to Ukraine to help in its “self-defense” against Russian aggression. It should hold Russia accountable for its illegal “occupation” of territory there, and push for international peacekeepers. Russian President Vladimir Putin bears the blame for this conflict in Europe, and he will be the “decision maker” on whether to end it too.
At least, that’s according to Ambassador Kurt Volker, the Trump administration’s special envoy charged with ending the war in Ukraine. If this sounds like a perfectly reasonable American policy toward Russia, that’s because it is, and more or less one that either party would pursue. But of course, there’s just one big problem with this: It almost certainly does not fully reflect what the president of the United States actually thinks.
Story Continued Below
In a new interview for The Global Politico, his first extensive one with a U.S. publication since taking on the post this summer, Volker talked at length about just how troubled relations are with Russia these days despite Trump’s hoped-for reconciliation, how the several rounds of talks he’s held with a top Putin adviser have not yet made any progress, and what it’s like to be a special envoy for a secretary of state who’s vowed to get rid of them.
Overall, he said, prospects for peace are so dim he reckons it’s very likely that active fighting will continue a year from now in Ukraine, which has been embroiled in military conflict since 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula, the first such takeover since World War II in Europe, and fomented a separatist war in eastern Ukraine—leading to international condemnation and, ultimately, sanctions that Putin is desperate to lift.
“I’d say it’s at least 80 percent,” Volker told me. “There’s a chance that there won’t be, but the most likely scenario is that this continues,” he added grimly, noting that more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine have been killed since the fighting broke out.
To spend time with Volker is to confront the essential schizophrenia of the Trump administration’s Russia policy. His version is what just about any U.S. administration’s view of Russia and the Ukraine conflict would have been. And it’s pretty much consistent with that of others inside the Trump administration with whom I’ve spoken recently: deeply critical of Putin and certainly not swayed by him; concerned that little or no progress can be made on key issues and that the bottom in U.S.-Russia relations has not yet been reached after this past year’s election hacking, tit-for-tat spying accusations, diplomatic expulsions and consulate closure.
Volker said Trump himself is now on board with this version of his Russia policy, if only because Putin’s moves have been so confrontational. “Russia brings it on,” Volker said. “That’s what the president always says: We would like to get along with Russia. But what Russia is doing makes it really hard.”
But of course, this Russia policy is still not exactly Donald Trump’s Russia policy.
Reminders of that come just about every day. Just a few hours before my interview with Volker, in fact, Trump had made a point of calling Putin, and the official readout of their more than hour-long conversation portrayed it as a wide-ranging discussion of Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, ISIS, the Middle East and Central Asia. The decision to speak with Putin drew literal groans from some administration Russia hands, given that it came the day after Putin had been photographed physically embracing the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in Sochi, and Trump’s statement about the phone call made no mention of any criticism toward Putin’s backing of the Syrian regime or his recent decision to veto a U.N. investigation of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
That did not seem accidental to anyone who has followed Trump’s dealings with the Russian leader. Despite the entreaties of his staff and their views – like Volker’s – that tend to be far more skeptical of the Kremlin strongman, Trump has never fully given up on his hopes of a friendly new era of Russian-American relations. On his recent trip to Asia, he even reignited the controversy over Putin’s 2016 intervention in the U.S. presidential election, suggesting he believed Putin’s denials – over the consistent findings of the U.S. intelligence community. (The White House later clarified, unconvincingly, that Trump hadn’t meant to suggest any such thing.)
All of which puts Kurt Volker right in the unlikely center of the most contentious foreign policy fight of the Trump presidency.
There’s no question that Volker, 52, is an unusual figure to have joined the Trump administration. His previous job was executive director of the institute started by Senator John McCain, perhaps Trump’s harshest foreign policy critic within his party and a Russia hawk of long standing who has been particularly pointed about Trump’s praise for Putin. And before that Volker served in a key role working with U.S. allies to counter Russian aggression as ambassador to NATO for President George W. Bush, whose foreign policy Trump spent much of the 2016 campaign bashing as expensive and inept.
Still, Volker pointedly did not sign the letter from a vast array of mainstream Republican national security types disavowing Trump during that campaign. A few of those who did sign it tell me they are glad he is on the case and running what appears to be his own version of a Ukraine policy they can live with; their only question is whether he, and the others who share his views within Trump’s administration, actually matter when it comes to making policy.
Volker also has the questionable distinction of being the only special envoy actually named to the job by Trump Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has come to office vowing to reorganize the department and eliminate dozens of separate special envoy positions like the one he just created for Volker. And in fact, Volker told me he has only taken on the post in a temporary, volunteer capacity, and that it was necessary because of the “particularly difficult transition” that left the Trump State Department without any political appointee in place to deal with the Russians on Ukraine.
When we spoke, Volker had just returned the previous week from a face-to-face meeting in Belgrade with a top Putin adviser, Vladislav Surkov. The session was their third, but Volker was blunt about what it accomplished: nothing. The talks, he said, were a “step back,” with Surkov reverting to Russia’s initial proposal in September to deploy U.N. peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine along the line currently separating Ukrainian government forces and the Russia-backed separatists. Surkov told reporters after the meeting that Volker had presented 29 separate paragraphs to the Russians and that Surkov had agreed with just three of them.
Either way, the meeting’s failure speaks not only to the difficulty of making peace in Ukraine but also to the troubled state of the current U.S.-Russian relationship.