A Russia reset? Maybe not yet. – Politico
After a phone call between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin days after the U.S. election, Russian media buzzed that Putin might host Trump this winter to kick off what the Kremlin described as their joint effort to “normalize ties” between the U.S. and Russia.
The talk of an early state visit remains speculative. But Trump’s avowed desire for better relations with the autocratic Russian president makes it plausible that Trump would pay the first presidential visit to Moscow since a hopeful trip by President Barack Obama in 2009.
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But interviews with more than a dozen officials and experts contacted by POLITICO since the election reveal an unyielding bipartisan and institutional opposition to any perceived effort by Trump to appease Putin. Such a gesture would be met with strong resistance from Congress, European allies, career national security officials and possibly even some key Trump officials.
“Trump can’t just unilaterally do it,” said Stephen Cohen, an author and academic who supports improved American relations with Moscow. “We don’t know that there’s going to be a partnership with Russia at all.”
The talk comes at a particularly tense moment, with Putin announcing on November 21 that Russia would move nuclear-capable missiles into its European enclave of Kaliningrad to counter what he called the NATO “threat” to his country.
“The situation is heating up,” Putin said of tensions with NATO in an interview with the filmmaker Oliver Stone broadcast on Russian television Monday.
Trump has pledged to cool it down. As a candidate, Trump promised to “get along great” with Putin, startling a foreign policy establishment that views the Russian leader as a treacherous enemy. Trump has suggested that the U.S. join forces with Moscow to fight the Islamic State, and mused about ending U.S. sanctions imposed since 2014 to punish Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Trump has also repeatedly expressed admiration for Putin and bragged that the Russian has called him “brilliant” — Putin actually used an adjective closer to “impressive” —leading critics to worry that the New Yorker may be dangerously eager for Putin’s friendship and approval.
Many analysts expect that Putin will offer Trump military cooperation against the Islamic State, which has not been a focus of Russian operations in Syria. In return, Putin will seek recognition of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula; an end to economic sanctions; and reduced U.S. military and political engagement in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Earlier this month, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the Associated Press that a “slow down or withdrawal of NATO’s military potential from our borders” could “lead to a kind of detente in Europe.”
But at the moment, talk of such an agreement is more likely to produce outrage on both sides of the Atlantic.
“The military doesn’t believe in that, the State Department doesn’t believe in that, the intelligence community doesn’t believe in that, the Republican Party doesn’t believe in that, and none of our allies believe in that,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO under Obama and president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“It is very difficult to think about Russia as a country where we can make deals without compromising our principles,” said Petr Pavel, a Czech army officer and chairman of NATO’s military committee who spoke to POLITICO on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada last weekend.
The first obstacle to Trump’s outreach could be within his own circle of top advisers. Vice president-elect Mike Pence derided Putin in an October debate as “small and bullying,” and said that recent “provocations by Russia need to be met with American strength.” Trump’s pick for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo, has called the U.S. response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine “far too weak.”
Trump’s choice for national security adviser, Michael Flynn, might also warn his boss about dealing with Putin. Although the retired general infamously sat next to Putin at a December 2015 dinner in Moscow and has said the U.S. and Russia should fight Islamic terrorism together, he was caustic about the Russian in an October interview with POLITICO. “Putin is a totalitarian dictator and a thug who does not have our interests in mind,” Flynn said.
Sources said that Trump’s pick for Secretary of State would send a strong signal about his intentions. One leading candidate for the post, Mitt Romney, has denounced Putin as a “thug” and in 2012 called Russia “America’s number-one geopolitical foe,” and is seen as unlikely to lead a strategic volte-face with Moscow.
If Trump does proceed with a Russian rapprochement, Congress may fight back.
For months, GOP leaders in Congress have slammed President Barack Obama’s allegedly tepid response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, and his backing for an armed pro-Russian insurgency in the country’s east that has killed thousands. They would be hard-pressed to defend a more forgiving Trump policy.
At the Republican convention in July, Trump campaign officials had to block proposed GOP platform language calling for arms to Ukraine. Trump has also hinted that he might recognize Crimea as part of Russia. (“You know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that,” he told ABC News in July.)
Congress has very different views on both scores. In March 2015, a House resolution calling on Obama to send arms to Ukraine’s government passed in an overwhelming 348-48 vote. And in September, the House approved another measure ordering the Government Printing Office to “not print any map, document, record, or other paper… portraying or otherwise indicating Crimea as part of the territory of the Russian Federation.”
While Trump could unilaterally end some U.S. sanctions on Russia that were imposed by Obama through executive orders, others would require Congressional action. They include sanctions on dozens of Russians implicated for human rights abuses under the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which Putin considers a major thorn in U.S.-Russian relations. Trump is unlikely to find much congressional support for its repeal.
Most top Republicans in Congress take a far more hawkish line towards Putin than Trump does. In September, House Speaker Paul Ryan rebuked Trump’s praise of the Russian, calling Putin “an aggressor that does not share our interests.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he would send arms to Ukraine’s government and expand U.S. missile defense systems in eastern Europe—moves that would enrage Putin.
Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain issued a statement shortly after the election warning Trump not to trust Putin. On CNN last month, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker warned Trump against letting Putin’s “flattery” affect his judgment.
And in a statement to POLITICO, House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Ed Royce pointedly said he is “ready to work with the Trump administration to check Russian propaganda, see NATO bolstered and act from a position of strength.”
Even many Democrats take a hard line on Putin, making it difficult for Trump to go around his own party. Russia “is the one foreign policy area where [Trump] would most likely face united opposition from Congress,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member.
Any move by Trump seen as selling out America’s European allies, Coons added, would be “vigorously and persistently opposed by Democrats and Republicans in the Congress who over decades have worked together to resist Russian aggression in Europe and the Middle East.”