Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow in December 2019.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his annual news conference in Moscow in December 2019. AP Images

As Russia Provokes, Trump Remains Silent

The president continues a pattern of deference to Moscow amid unsafe air operations, a roadway collision that injured U.S. troops, and the poisoning of a Putin critic.

Moscow has been busy. 

In the last week, the U.S. military has intercepted six Russian jets “loitering” off the coast of Alaska, while over the Black Sea, two Russian planes crossed a B-52 bomber’s nose at less than 100 feet. In Syria, a Russian vehicle sideswiped a U.S. armored vehicle, injuring seven soldiers amid what one U.S. official called a spike in provocative behavior by Russian forces in the country.

And on Aug. 20, Russia’s opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was poisoned using the same nerve agent used to sicken former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England two years ago — an attack believed by Western intelligence officials to have been carried out by Russian agents. 

President Donald Trump has been silent on the sudden spate of provocations by Russia. Although a National Security Council spokesman called the poisoning “completely reprehensible” in a Wednesday statement, Trump himself hasn’t spoken publicly on the matter since saying “we’re looking at it” the day after Navalny fell ill. 

Among those criticizing the president’s reticence is his most recent former national security advisor, John Bolton. "It's confirmed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Novichok — the same family of nerve agent used in the 2018 attack on the Skripals in UK," Bolton wrote on Twitter. "We need an urgent statement from Pres. Trump demanding a full explanation from the Russians."

Trump’s reluctance to publicly condemn provocations by Moscow has become a point of contention in the run-up to the 2020 election. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Monday accused Trump of “subservience” to Russian president Vladimir Putin, specifically criticizing the president for failing to raise the issue of reported Russian bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan during multiple phone calls with Putin. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly raised the issue with his counterpart in a call earlier this month, but Trump has said publicly that he has not addressed it with Putin, and has at times dismissed the reports as “fake news.” 

“That was a phone call to discuss other things, and frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news,” Trump said in an interview with “Axios on HBO” in July, referring to a recent call with the Russian leader. “If it reached my desk, I would have done something about it.” 

The dynamic recalls Trump’s reaction to the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and is working to sway November’s polling as well. The president has consistently and repeatedly taken Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s side in the matter. 

On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr continued the Trump administration’s attempt to deflect attention from Russia, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that U.S. intelligence shows that China has been more aggressive in its election meddling. 

One day later, the Department of Homeland Security issued an intelligence bulletin warning of Russian disinformation on mail-in voting. 

And at least one Democratic lawmaker has accused Barr of “lying.” 

“I've seen the intelligence, too, and have been briefed by the intel community's top China and Russia experts,” tweeted Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. “To be clear, the Chinese gov't is doing nasty stuff - stealing intellectual property, pressuring US companies to self-censor, threatening Americans with their national security laws. But when it comes to active interference in our elections, Russia remains the current threat.”

The Aug. 27 incident near Dayrick, Syria, appears to be part of increased Russian harassment of the several hundred U.S. troops still deployed to prevent Kurdish oil fields from falling into the hands of ISIS or the Assad regime. 

“There are periodic spikes in Russian activity and harassment levels and I think we’re in a period of a spike,” said one U.S. official. “Ideally, I think they’d love to pressure us out of there. But I don’t think they can. I do think they want to make it uncomfortable for us.”

Dayrick sits in a Syrian “deconfliction zone” where Russian and U.S. troops both operate. There is a channel for military leaders from both sides to communicate to prevent misunderstandings or run-ins like the one that took place last week, but the Russians often abuse that channel, the official said, sometimes by flooding it with dozens of requests that they don’t intend to follow through on — essentially creating “static.”

“They know that we are going to treat the whole system professionally and they’re gaming it,” the official said.

On Monday, Biden also rebuked Trump for failing to publicly address the altercation.

"It's been reported that Russian forces just attacked American troops in Syria, injuring our service members. Did you hear the president say a single word? Did he lift one finger?" Biden said. 

Pentagon leaders have spoken to their Russian counterparts about the incident, according to a statement from Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman. 

“We have advised the Russians that their behavior was dangerous and unacceptable,” Hoffman said on Thursday. “We expect a return to routine and professional deconfliction in Syria and reserve the right to defend our forces vigorously whenever their safety is put at risk.”

But their commander in chief himself has not addressed the matter publicly. 

It’s not clear that any of the various incidents in the past several weeks — particularly the two flight interceptions and the incident in Dayrick — are necessarily connected, some officials say. But other former officials say that Putin feels emboldened by Trump’s public quiescence. 

“With everything going on don’t forget that this week saw the first direct confrontation between regular US and Russian ground forces ever with seven Americans injured when Russians rammed their vehicle. Why do Russians feel so emboldened?” tweeted Trump’s former envoy in the counter-ISIS fight, Brett McGurk, who has become a frequent critic of the president’s. “These incidents have been building for MONTHS. Trump talks to Putin all the time. Why has he NEVER raised issues pertaining to the protection of US troops? What’s more important?”

Trump’s consistent public defense of Putin has long raised concerns in Washington, with critics accusing him of cozying up to the autocratic leader at the expense of U.S. interests. The president and his allies say that he has used sanctions and indictments — as well as arms sales to Ukraine — to be tough on Russia, while simultaneously pursuing better relations with Moscow. 

Current and former officials say Trump’s personal sensitivity to any suggestion that Russia may have helped him win his office has complicated efforts to hold Moscow accountable for behavior the U.S. government considers objectionable.

For days after the ramming incident at Dayrick had become public through social media, the Pentagon was silent on the matter. Finally — and unusually — it was the National Security Council that confirmed the incident in a statement. Asked why the statement hadn’t come from the Pentagon or U.S. Central Command, the U.S. official pinned it on a fear of the White House’s reaction if the military were to talk about Russian provocations. 

“I think they’re just extremely sensitive — they know the White House is extremely sensitive to any criticism of Russia,” the official said. “‘Okay, you talk about it.’”