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News Analysis: U.S. Policy Toward Russia Toughens, Despite Trump Talk


U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam on November 11.

Statements from the Kremlin and the White House last weekend about thwarting a purported terrorist attack in St. Petersburg seemed to suggest that the United States and Russia were entering a new era of comity and cooperation.

That's not the case by a long shot, judging by the countervailing indications from the White House's new National Security Strategy, the aisles of Congress, and the State Department, among others.

The Kremlin has suggested as much, too, most recently on December 20 when President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Russia was "working on and taking active measures aimed at defending our interests against a backdrop of possible new restrictive actions and sanctions" by unnamed countries.

Within much of the Washington foreign-policy establishment and among many members of Congress, the hardening line toward Russia is welcome in light of U.S. intelligence warnings that Moscow tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

But the contrast with U.S. President Donald Trump's repeated calls for greater cooperation with Moscow makes the tough talk coming from policy officials all the more striking.

"I am surprised by how tough the language is toward Russia, because while it reflects where a lot of the foreign-policy establishment is, it clearly doesn't reflect where the president is or has been," says Richard Haass, a former special assistant to President George H.W. Bush who is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

In August, Trump reluctantly signed into law new U.S. sanctions against Moscow for its actions in Ukraine, Syria, and cyberspace. Senior administration officials have recently accused Russia of offenses from seeking to cause "crises of confidence" in the West to abrogating a key Cold War treaty.

Such concerns were underscored by the National Security Strategy issued by the U.S. president on December 18, which calls out Russia as a "revisionist power" seeking to "undermine the legitimacy of democracies."

Cooperation Or Confrontation?

Throughout his campaign and into the early months of his presidency, Trump repeatedly called for closer cooperation with Russia and Putin.

The fight against international terrorism and Islamic State (IS) militants in particular is foremost among the areas Trump and his inner circle say Moscow and Washington should be working closely together. A nuclear-armed Pyongyang and resolving tensions on the Korean Peninsula is another.

"There's been a consistently...denying or a sanguine view about Russia and a tremendous optimism about Russia," Haass says.

Trump has also repeatedly cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence consensus on Russian election meddling.

But U.S. investigations into contacts and possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russians have dogged Trump's first year in office, efforts that he has decried as a "witch-hunt."

The December 17 announcements from Washington and Moscow that the CIA provided intelligence to its main Russian counterpart, the Federal Security Service, to help thwart a terror attack in Russia's second city was striking not only in its timing but also in the fulsome praise between the Kremlin and White House, something not seen in years.

The Republican-led Congress has at times sought to limit Trump's ability to maneuver on Russia. That prompted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to complain over the summer as lawmakers moved to cement existing sanctions and impose new ones.

And when Trump grudgingly signed that legislation into law, he made clear in an accompanying signing statement that he did not want to be handcuffed, particularly in his effort to resolve the 3 1/2-year conflict in Ukraine, pitting Russia-backed fighters against government troops.

"My administration particularly expects the Congress to refrain from using this flawed bill to hinder our important work with European allies to resolve the conflict in Ukraine," the statement said.

Missiles Vs. Diplomacy

Earlier this month, Congress passed a $700 billion defense-policy bill that contained several provisions that have irked Moscow. They include more money for Ukrainian security and billions more to bolster U.S. and NATO military deployments in Eastern Europe. There is also funding to develop a new ground-launched cruise missile in response to a missile that Washington says Russia has deployed in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Trump again pushed back, saying those provisions "could potentially dictate the position of the United States in external military and foreign affairs" and interfere with diplomacy.

Moscow has said a major irritant in relations was the decision by Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, in the final weeks of his presidency to seize two Russian diplomatic compounds near Washington and New York. The Russian Foreign Ministry repeatedly expressed hope for their return.

Not only has that not happened; in August, the State Department ordered the closure of Russia's San Francisco Consulate, which may have been an important site for Russian intelligence gathering.

"Russia continues aggressive behavior toward other regional neighbors by interfering in election processes and promoting non-democratic ideals," Tillerson said last month. "We, together with our friends in Europe, recognize the active threat of a recently resurgent Russia."

Last week, previewing the release of the National Security Strategy, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster did not appear to be laying the groundwork for any softening in the administration's approach.

Russia has pioneered "new-generation warfare" that uses "subversion and disinformation and propaganda using cybertools, operating across multiple domains, that attempt to divide our communities within our nations and pit them against each other, and try to create crises of confidence," he said on December 12.

Then this week, McMaster said that "we have to counter Russia's destabilizing behavior and the sophisticated campaigns of propaganda and disinformation."

However, in the speech to unveil his administration's 68-page National Security Strategy, Trump gave only passing mention of possible threats from Russia before turning to the topic of potential partnership with Moscow, says Thomas Wright, director of the Brookings Institute's Center on the United States and Europe.

He and other foreign-policy observers and veterans say the perceived disconnect between Trump's statements and some officials' policy statements and speeches could hint that some cabinet members and other senior administration policymakers might not be totally in sync with their boss.

"There is clearly a difference between the policy...of the cabinet members of the Trump administration involved in making policy toward Russia; between them and the president and I suppose a small group of people in the White House," says Angela Stent, who served as a national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia in 2004-06.

Haass says divisions might not bode well for foreign governments -- Russia included -- trying to discern Washington's policies not just toward Moscow, but on issues like Syria, North Korea, or Iran as well.

"This is just one statement among many that this administration will make," Haass says. "The risk is that it will tend to be dismissed if the inconsistencies in it...become pronounced."

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