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Transatlantic Take

Re-establishing Reality in U.S.–Russia Relations after Helsinki

July 19, 2018
4 min read
Photo Credit: Nataliya Zinovyeva / Shutterstock

WASHINGTON, DC — Following a closed-door meeting with U.S. President Trump, Russian President Putin stood confident before a press pool in Helsinki on Monday and asserted, “It's quite clear to everyone that the bilateral [U.S–Russia] relationship are [sic] going through a complicated stage, and yet those impediments, the current tension, the tense atmosphere, essentially have no solid reason behind it.”

There were several worrying aspects of the Putin–Trump meeting, including things said and left unsaid at the press conference. Trump’s insinuation that he trusts Putin more than his own intelligence services was obviously dangerous for American interests and demoralizing for those serving the U.S. in these capacities — even as he has since tried to walk these remarks back. Trump’s failure to even brush by any relative condemnation of Russia’s ongoing aggressions in Ukraine seemed out of touch. But Trump’s willingness to go along with Putin’s “nothing-to-see-here” characterization of the Kremlin’s actions over the past several years move into the realm of the absurd, and is a big problem even if it has not been the biggest story from Helsinki.

It is difficult for honest conversation to proceed from this starting point. Putin was able to assert a well-worn false narrative about Russian action and U.S.–Russian relations. Every other topic facing the two leaders flowed from this sleight-of-hand parlor trick, while President Trump offered no rebuttal and demonstrated no awareness of the problem.

Not only did Trump fail to push back on the “baseless tensions” claim, but more troubling than that is that he set the stage for Putin. Before going into the meeting, Trump tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia has never been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity...” This is a deeply concerning characterization not only because it undermines the legitimacy of U.S. policy, but because it is false.

A quick refresher of Russian actions over the past few years demonstrate that the state of U.S.–Russian relations are not thanks “to U.S. foolishness and stupidity,” but the Kremlin’s foreign policy that flouts international norms, conventions, and the sovereignty of its neighbors. It was Putin’s Kremlin that launched a cyber-attack against Estonia in 2007, and invaded Georgia in 2008. It is Putin’s Russia that continues to occupy 20 percent of Georgia territory and steadily attempts to increase the incursions from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Putin-directed Russian irregular forces invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014. It is Putin’s policy that continues to destabilize Eastern Ukraine, killing over 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers and internally displacing over 1.6 million Ukrainians. The Putin regime chose to violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by deploying and testing intermediate-range cruise missiles which are prohibited by the agreement. It is also the Putin regime’s policy to conduct large-scale military snap exercises that skirt the rules of OSCE standards.   

It is Putin who unabashedly supports Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who on multiple occasions used chemical weapons against civilian populations with no recourse from his enablers. Not to mention the extra-territorial poisonings and attacks suspected of the Putin regime in places like Ukraine and the United Kingdom, as well as its efforts to interfere in elections throughout Europe and in the United States.

Trump’s meeting with Putin and his attempts to flatter the Russian President are enough to make one’s head spin — it is also hard to know where it leaves U.S.–Russia relations today and what President Trump’s next steps will be as he walks back some statements, only to seemingly reverse course again within a day. If he continues to go along with Putin’s alternate reality, it is necessary for Congress to be more vocal about the threats posed by the Kremlin and be ready to act. Bipartisan pressure, which successfully led Trump to claim he misspoke about believing Putin over U.S. intelligence, should demand more than a superficial walk-back to a much more fundamental problem. A first step in the right direction would be for Congress to pass a concurrent resolution affirming the conclusions of the intelligence community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 elections and calling on the president to clearly condemn Russia’s actions, while also warning Russia about the consequences of similar behavior in future elections.

In times when facts and strategy are blown aside by skewed and rapidly changing narratives, it is worth stepping back and reiterating that the goal of U.S. foreign policy should be to create stable and predictable relations with Moscow — even if closer ties may not be possible in the near term. But this cannot be solely defined on Moscow’s terms, particularly at the expense of the basic facts that frame U.S.–Russian relations. In this regard, Congress needs to keep pressure on the president and make sure U.S. Russia policy is not influenced by Putin’s alternate history. Tensions in relations today are not baseless, and treating them as such will not serve U.S. interest, or the interest of its allies.