Few issues stir more concerns—and confusion—about where the Trump administration is heading than relations with Russia. Several Cabinet secretaries, during their confirmation hearings and subsequent statements, voiced strong support for maintaining sanctions on Russia and providing lethal assistance for Ukraine, and cited Russia as a major threat to U.S. interests. Those views, however, clash with the comments President Trump has made as a candidate and even more recently since his inauguration. Trump has been consistent throughout the campaign and since his election in his admiration for Vladimir Putin, his desire for better relations with Russia, and his hope for cooperation on fighting ISIS. It is too soon to say whose views inside the administration ultimately will prevail.
The administration has not yet lifted sanctions, though there was a flurry of speculation at the end of the first week that such a step was imminent. Very negative Congressional reaction to such a move may well have dissuaded the administration from taking this step. Russia’s neighbors are nervous that they will fall victim to a grand bargain of sorts, in which Putin will pledge partnership with Washington on fighting ISIS and cutting nuclear weapons in exchange for a free hand to do what he wants in the region. Should Trump move to lift sanctions on Russia without Russia’s full withdrawal from Ukraine, he will face an increased likelihood that Congress will react by passing legislation codifying the sanctions. Should Trump take such a step, he will complicate life for European leaders, who face their own challenges in maintaining unity for sanctions on Russia.
Much uncertainty surrounds the Putin-Trump relationship, even though the two leaders have yet to meet in person. A date is yet to be set for such an encounter. There has been some reassurance after President Trump announced he would attend this May’s NATO summit. The U.S. will have a strong presence at the Munich Security Conference this month, and it will be interesting to listen to the views of Vice President Pence, Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson on Russia and compare those to the President’s.
Ongoing speculation about what Trump might do vis-à-vis Putin heightens the burden on European allies to stay the course. We must stand by Ukraine and recognize that it is the victim of Russia’s aggression. Close to 10,000 people have died in the fighting there, and Russia bears responsibility for that. In addition, Russia’s military intervention in Syria came at great cost, and Russia’s hacking and interference in our election also merits a strong response. We cannot sweep Putin’s egregious behavior under the rug and pretend that we can start from zero. Putin exploits weakness and an overeagerness to get along. Let’s not make that mistake again.
David J. Kramer is Senior Director for Human Rights and Democracy at the McCain Institute for International Leadership.