On the heels of special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians for meddling in the 2016 election, President Donald Trump is under increasing pressure to retaliate against Moscow.
Trump’s opponents blasted him over the weekend for supposedly ignoring crimes perpetrated by Kremlin-linked trolls and hackers. They have slammed him for not publicly condemning the Kremlin and even accused him of “undermining” U.S. democracy.
The political firestorm over the Mueller indictment has obscured the true nature of Trump’s policy toward Russia in his first year in office. By any objective examination of the president’s broader record on Russia, it is clear that he has pursued a more hawkish policy toward Moscow than his predecessor.
Trump has taken several actions to counter or thwart Russian interests in the Middle East, Europe and at home. Here are five of the strongest:
Cruise missile strike on Syrian military base
In April, Trump ordered a devastating cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sarin gas attack on civilians. The overwhelming display of firepower consisted of at least 50 Tomahawk missiles fired from a U.S. destroyer in the Mediterranean, which completely destroyed the air base.
The strike infuriated the Kremlin, with Putin calling it a “significant blow” to bilateral relations and Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedv saying Trump had “completely ruined” any chance of easing tensions.
Russia is one of Assad’s key allies in the Middle East and views American attacks on the Syrian regime as a strategic threat. Still, Trump administration officials ignored Russian objections to the retaliatory strike and went so far as to suggest Moscow bore responsibility for Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
New sanctions on Russians
Trump has come under fire from Democratic opponents and media commentators for not yet imposing sanctions on Russian individuals pursuant to a law passed by Congress in July. They say the delay is evidence that Trump is letting Russia off the hook for election meddling.
But these criticisms overlook two critical points about Trump’s sanctions policy. First, the law allows a 120-day grace period for the administration to evaluate if entities on its sanctions list have “substantially reduced” their business ties to Russian national security agencies. It has been just 22 says since the administration released the list.
Second, Trump has on multiple occasions slapped new sanctions on key Putin allies and other Kremlin-connected Russians. In June, the Department of the Treasury hit 38 individuals and organizations for their involvement in separatist movements in Ukraine. Then, the administration froze the U.S. assets of five prominent Russians in December, including Chechen leader Roman Kadyrov, a close Putin ally.
Additionally, Trump has not lifted any of the sanctions the Obama administration imposed over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.
Seized Russian diplomatic facilities in the U.S.
When Trump took office proclaiming a desire to “get along” with Russia, Washington’s foreign policy mandarins worried that would entail rolling back Obama’s punitive sanctions, including returning two diplomatic compounds to Russian control.
In fact, Trump did the opposite, ejecting Russia from three more diplomatic facilities late last summer. Responding to Moscow’s demands that the U.S. pare down its diplomatic presence in Russia, the Department of State shut down Russia’s consulate general in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C., and a consular annex in New York City.
The move demonstrated that the Trump administration had no qualms with escalating a diplomatic tit-for-tat begun under the previous administration. Trump has refused to return the seized compounds, despite Moscow’s threats of lawsuits and claims that Washington has violated diplomatic protocols.
Missiles, natural gas to Poland
When it comes to strategic confrontation with Russia, Syria is not the only place where Trump has moved against Russian interests. In November, Washington agreed to sell Poland $10.5 billion worth of Patriot defensive missiles and related equipment.
The deal was aimed specifically at shoring up Poland’s defenses against Russia, which had deployed nuclear-capable Iskaner missiles on its Kaliningrad exclave between Lithuania and Poland. It came on the heels of a deployment of Patriot missile batteries in Lithuania, another move that irked Moscow.
Later in November, the Trump administration approved the sale of U.S. liquid natural gas to Poland, a deal that hurts Russian economic interests there. The five-year agreement was part of a bigger effort to help Eastern European countries reduce their dependence on pipeline-delivered gas from Russia and boost American natural gas exports.
Lethal weapons to Ukraine
More recently, the Trump administration has moved to counter the ongoing Russian military support for Ukranian separatists by taking a step the Obama administration never did, despite its rhetoric denouncing Moscow’s intervention.
For the first time since Russian forces moved into Ukraine in 2014, the U.S. agreed in December to supply Kiev with lethal defensive weapons to help deter the Russian-backed separatists. The move was applauded by Russia hawks in Congress, who had been prodding the Obama administration to deepen U.S. involvement in Ukraine after Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula.
Included in the arms transfers are Javelin anti-tank missiles, a weapon long sought by the Ukrainian military to bolster its capability against Russian-made armored vehicles. Because the weapons would be deployed directly against Russian-backed forces in a hot war, the sale antagonized Moscow even more than the deployment of Partiot missiles to the Baltic region.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Trump’s decision would make the conflict even more deadly and accused the U.S. of being an “accomplice in fueling the war.”
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