The Trump Administration Has A New Plan For Dealing With Russia – BuzzFeed News
As the White House fends off accusations of collusion with Russia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has taken it upon himself to guide the Trump administration’s thinking on dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The former Texas oilman, who worked extensively with Kremlin officials as CEO of Exxon Mobil, has crafted a three-point framework for future US-Russia relations that takes a narrow view of what can be achieved between the former Cold War adversaries, but seeks a constructive working relationship with Putin on a limited set of issues.
“Right now, US-Russia relations are in the gutter,” a senior State Department official familiar with the framework told BuzzFeed News. “We want to make sure it doesn’t flush into the sewer.”
The framework, a classified document that hasn’t previously been revealed, has become the source of anxious speculation by US allies still puzzled about Trump’s commitment to deterring Russia and bolstering NATO allies, even after his endorsement of the military alliance’s principle of collective defense.
The first pillar of the framework, a US official said, is to convey to Moscow that aggressive actions against the United States are a losing proposition that will be counterproductive for both sides. When Russia takes bold actions against American interests, such as sending arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan or harassing US diplomats in Moscow, Washington will push back.
The second pillar is to engage on issues that are of strategic interest to the United States, including the long-running civil war in Syria, North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear weapons program, and cybersecurity and cyberespionage, a US official said. Tillerson wants to reverse Moscow’s recent boost in trade with North Korea following some modest success in getting China to ban imports of coal from the rogue nation. He is seeking better coordination with Russia in Syria against ISIS, although it is unclear how that might be achieved. The two Cold War foes also maintain an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of cyberweapons, but lack a mutual understanding of what’s fair game and what isn’t.
The third pillar of Tillerson’s framework emphasizes the importance of “strategic stability” with Russia, an ambiguous umbrella term that encompasses a range of long-term mutual geopolitical goals.
“Right now, US-Russia relations are in the gutter. We want to make sure it doesn’t flush into the sewer.”
“It’s a mixture of pushing back and also engaging on issues where there might be convergence,” said Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and a scholar at the Brookings Institution, after reviewing a framework summary.
Pifer said the framework is similar to a four-point strategy for dealing with Russia that the Obama administration created in 2015, after the Ukraine crisis upended efforts to “reset” relations with the Kremlin. The difficulty, he said, is knowing whether Trump will adhere to it or pursue a more ambitious grand bargain with Russia that shows deference to Moscow’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. “We’re talking about a Tillerson document,” he said. “If we’ve learned anything over the last four months, it’s that the president could throw it out at any moment.”
James Carafano, a defense expert who worked on the Trump transition team, defended the framework as a clever tool for Tillerson to show his boss the limits of engagement with Putin.
“Putin will deliver nothing on Syria or North Korea and this will allow Tillerson to show Trump he tried,” said Carafano. “It’s not a reset because we are not giving away the farm at the front end to get nothing in return.”
A key difference from the Obama-era strategy is that the Tillerson framework does not expressly commit to building up the “resilience” of Russian neighbors. Obama’s strategy, drafted by his White House senior director for Russia, Celeste Wallander, pledged to make Eastern and Central European countries more “resilient against Russian tactics” through various democracy-building programs and the development of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, which first deployed in June 2015 for a NATO exercise in Poland.
When asked about the omission, a State Department spokesperson said US support for Eastern Europe will remain in place, even if it isn’t explicitly stated in the framework. She pointed to Tillerson’s remarks during a Senate budget hearing last week pledging to maintain a “particular emphasis on the countries that we see in Europe that are most at risk of Russian interference.”
Tillerson’s reassurances were met with skepticism last week, when lawmakers including Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham questioned his budget proposal, which would cut US assistance to several countries in Russia’s sphere of influence. “What do we tell our friends in Georgia about reducing their aid about 66% given the threats they faced?” Graham said.
Tillerson said the goal of US aid programs has never been to provide assistance to US allies indefinitely.
Another difference from the Obama-era framework is how the Tillerson strategy was crafted. Under the Obama administration, Wallander lead the drafting process from her perch at the White House. Under the Trump administration, Tillerson and his top aides at the State Department took the lead on writing it.
“Tillerson and the State Department had the pen, which was different with how things worked in the Obama administration where the NSC had the pen,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as Obama’s senior director for Europe in the White House. “Under the Obama administration, the NSC drove the interagency process.”
A White House official familiar with the process said the drafting of the document originally began with Fiona Hill, the White House senior director for Europe and Russia. But during that process, Tillerson came forward with his own framework — a product of his personal views, numerous one-on-one luncheons with the president, and the State Department’s director of policy planning, Brian Hook. Tillerson’s outsize influence on the document, which won approval at a meeting of White House cabinet officials including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, demonstrates the new power dynamics inside the Trump administration.
“What you’re seeing now is the reemergence of the role of the agencies, whether that be DoD, State or the intelligence community,” the senior State Department official said. “So things like this would start in the State Department.”