Donald Trump says building a “good relationship” with Russia isn’t about his interests, but America’s. Russia “can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race,” the president noted last week in explaining why he had congratulated Vladimir Putin on his victory in an unfree election.
On Monday, however, the U.S.-Russian relationship went from bad to worse. The Trump administration shut down the Russian consulate in Seattle and ordered 60 diplomats to leave the United States in retaliation for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter with a nerve agent. Canada and several European countries also booted Russian officials, in what the British prime minister has described as the “largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history.” The United States and its allies have blamed the Russian government for the chemical-weapon attack, which targeted British citizens on British soil.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Trump administration officials stated that the United States can’t improve relations with Russia while the Kremlin is denying responsibility for the attempted murder, messing with America’s friends, and engaging in a “steady drumbeat of destabilizing and aggressive actions” in the U.S. and around the world. Russian agents “hide behind a veneer of diplomatic immunity while actively engaging in intelligence operations that undermine the country in which they are hosted and the democracies they seek to minimize,” a senior administration official explained.
Their arguments highlighted a fundamental challenge with Trump’s pursuit of better relations with Putin: Russia has become central to the conflicts the president cites in large part by acting against U.S. interests. The Kremlin has extended support to the North Korean and Iranian governments even as the Trump administration seeks to isolate them; focused on shoring up the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rather than fighting ISIS; defied international norms by forcibly revising Ukraine’s borders; and developed new nuclear weapons to evade U.S. defenses. To say Russia can help resolve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran, and the arms race to America’s satisfaction is a bit like counting on the soccer team you’re playing against to score on its own goal.
Trump’s puzzling refusal to criticize Putin and reckon with Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election gets a lot of attention, but it distracts from the ways in which competition between the world’s largest military powers is actually heating up. The Trump administration has provided lethal arms to Ukraine—something the Obama administration long resisted. It has escalated U.S. military involvement in Syria, bombing Assad for using chemical weapons and battling Russian mercenaries who encroached on American turf. It imposed sanctions to punish Russia for interfering in the presidential election, albeit belatedly and at the behest of Congress. Now Trump has expelled more Russian officials than his predecessor ever did. In closing the Russian consulate in San Francisco in August and Seattle today, he has wiped out Russia’s diplomatic presence on the West Coast and substantially degraded its covert capabilities in the United States. “This is absolutely [the president’s] decision,” a senior administration official said on Monday, without answering whether Trump has personally discussed the nerve-agent attack with Putin.
Maybe all this was predictable. “I imagine [Donald will] fall out with his new friend Vladimir pretty quickly,” the Russia expert Fiona Hill told me shortly after the 2016 election, before she joined Trump’s National Security Council. Russia has “always been an expansionist power—on the go all the time, not one to give up anything and concede anything—pretty much like the United States. … We’re going to have an awful lot of friction.” But what’s come as more of a surprise is that Trump, who campaigned on obliterating jihadist terrorist groups, has spent so much of his presidency sparring with states instead: Iran and North Korea over nuclear weapons, China over trade, Russia over one conflict after another.
“Geopolitics are back … with a vengeance, after this holiday from history we took in the so-called post-Cold War period,” H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national-security adviser, once said. McMaster’s is poised to leave the administration, to be replaced by a Russia hawk. Yet his observation has never rung more true.