People are Policy: What to Expect From Trump’s Russia Policy
Since the early days of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, President-elect Donald Trump’s perceived afinity, or at least fondness, for Russia and Vladimir Putin has raised concern in many quarters. It is not clear how much we should read into his campaign comments or how they will translate into U.S. policy dealing with Russia or the broader Eurasia region.
However, it is certain that the Trump administration will try some sort of rapprochement with Moscow. It is also clear, as history demonstrates, that eventually the attempt to better relations with Russia will fail—as was the case with Trump’s two most recent predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The big question is: How much damage will U.S. interests in the Eurasia region incur as a result of the attempted rapprochement with Moscow? It is on this point that Trump’s top Cabinet and White House appointments will make the difference. So far, all of his top appointments have departed from Trump’s rhetoric on Russia and taken a hardline. And during his recent press conference, Trump himself departed ever so slightly from his usual comments about Russia; in finally acknowledging that Russia was behind the recent email hacks of the DNC, he started hardening his position.
Trump’s pick for Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, has a track record of taking a hardline against Russia. In 2014, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said that “we [the USA] have a lot to worry about with Vladimir Putin.” Last May he said there were few threats greater than Iran and its growing alliance with Russia. These are hardly the words of someone soft on Russia. This same sentiment was apparent in his recent confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate.
Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, retired three-star U.S. Army Gen. Mike Flynn, is well known for his regrettable attendance in 2015 at RT’s 10th anniversary gala dinner, where he sat next to Vladimir Putin. More recently, he has advocated for a partnership with Russia to defeat the so-called Islamic State in Syria. This has raised eyebrows among those in the policy community who see widely different U.S. and Russian goals in Syria . Yet, Flynn has also taken a hardline against Russia. In his recently-published book Field of Fight, Flynn describes Russia as leading an “Enemy Alliance” with Iran at the “center” of this alliance.
After Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea, the president-elect’s pick for the Director of National Intelligence, then-Indiana Sen. Dan Coates, was a vocal advocate for economic sanctions against Russia. His staunch support for sanctions even earned him the honor of being banned by Russia from entering the country.
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has probably been Trump’s most controversial Cabinet pick. Since being selected for the Secretary of State position, his previous relationship with Vladimir Putin and his dealings with Russia while helming ExxonMobil have come under much scrutiny. It is understandable: after all, Tillerson was even awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin—a dubious honor if ever there was one.
However, much of the criticism has been unfair. As CEO of the world’s largest energy company, Tillerson had a responsibility to the company’s shareholders to act in their best interest. Unfortunately for him right now, often what was in the best interest of ExxonMobil was also in Putin’s interest— like lifting economic sanctions to allow for more drilling in Russia. Hopefully Tillerson will serve his new shareholders, the American people, equally well.
Tillerson also brings additional skills to the role of Secretary of State that differ from many of his predecessors. During his career at ExxonMobil he became a very astute practitioner of international affairs. This was necessary because he cut his business teeth in some of the more geo-politically challenging regions of the world— such as Russia, Central Asia, and the Caspian basin.
The most widely praised national security appointment has been Trump’s selection for Secretary of Defense, former U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis. Mattis’ position on Russia has been clear and consistent for years. During a 2015 speech at the Heritage Foundation, Mattis said that, among the threats the U.S. faces “in the near term, I think the most dangerous might be Russia.” In the same speech he also called out Vladimir Putin’s disregard for international law, saying: “Putin goes to bed at night knowing he can break all the rules, and the West will follow all the rules…That is a very dangerous dichotomy in the way the world is being run.”
As the former Commander of U.S. Central Command, Mattis has deep knowledge and experience working with Eurasia. He is well travelled in the region, understands the challenges the region faces, and knows all the key players.
It is important to look beyond Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail or his pithy 140 character-long tweets about Russia and examine more clearly those around him who will be actually making and implementing U.S. foreign policy.
It would be a very long and awkward stretch to say Donald Trump’s national security team is soft on Russia. And the consequences of these appointments will be felt well beyond Russia. Across all of Eurasia, especially Central Asia, there is potential for more U.S. focus on the region—something that is sorely needed.
It is a maxim in Washington that “people are policy.” As the incoming administration goes about crafting America’s new strategy with Russia, it is comforting to know that the president-elect has chosen wisely and assembling his national security team.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not Caspian Policy Center.