How the U.S. deals with NATO, the termination of the INF treaty − many decisions by President Donald Trump meet Russia's needs. But Putin cannot be satisfied.
A U.S. president as a puppet of Vladimir Putin? This is what Donald Trump's opponents claim. They fear the Russian president is using Trump to destabilize the U.S. and the West.
There is a lot that seems to confirm such fears: the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is constantly bringing to light new indications that Trump’s 2016 campaign team was in contact with people associated with Russian leadership. And it remains to be seen whether Putin has anything in his possession that resulted from the Trump Organization’s business activities in Russia that can be used against Trump.
Trump's behavior during his encounters with Putin also raises questions. The two met at the summit of leading rich and developing nations in Buenos Aires in November for a discussion, without a translator or a member of the U.S. president's staff present.
According to The Washington Post, Trump personally went to unusual lengths to keep details of his conversation with Putin secret from his staff during the 2017 G-20 summit in Hamburg. He reportedly confiscated his translator's notes. At a press conference in Helsinki in July 2018, Trump exposed U.S. authorities in Putin’s presence. He accused them of disastrous investigations and spoke of a "witch hunt" by the FBI against him and his comrades in arms.
Undermining Trust in Allies
But how much do Trump's actions correspond to Russian interests? Trump's behavior with U.S. allies is sure to be a boon to Moscow, particularly his treatment of NATO, which the Russian leadership regards as a threat to national security. Trump snubbed the allies by describing the defensive alliance as outdated. While previous administrations have only quietly pointed out the disproportion between the U.S. and the other NATO states in the financing of the alliance, Trump sharply criticizes this − especially for states like Germany.
The U.S. leadership's push for the suspension of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty without coordinating with European allies further contributed to an erosion of confidence. It is Europe's security architecture that is being weakened.
Putin said several times in 2007 that he sees the INF Treaty as detrimental to Russia; at the security conference in Munich, for example. While only the U.S. and Russia were required to comply with the short and medium-range missile treaty, other states such as Pakistan, India and Iran also had such missiles. “It is obvious that in these conditions we must think about ensuring our own security,” Putin said in Munich at the time.
Trump Leaves the Field to Russia
Trump’s announcement in December that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria must also have been met with jubilation in the Kremlin. With this act, he leaves the field there to Russia and Russia's ally, Iran.
Just a few months earlier, Trump had agreed to a strategy for U.S. troops to remain in Syria. In addition to the fight against the Islamic State terrorist militia, deterring Iran was cited as an argument, as The Washington Post reported. His decision seems even more contradictory as Trump accuses his intelligence services of being “extremely passive and naïve” when it comes to the dangers of Iran.
This shows that he's a hard-liner toward Iran like his national security advisor, John Bolton. Bolton was a strong supporter of sanctions and the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran. The fact that Trump finally ordered the latter was criticized by the Russian leadership as a reckless solo move, since Russia helped negotiate the agreement and wanted to maintain it.
But what plays right into Russia’s hands is that Trump has proven once more that one can no longer rely on the U.S. In addition, Iran can export less oil because of the new U.S. sanctions. Russia's oil companies can step in.
Opponents in Venezuela
In Venezuela, the power and economic interests of the U.S. and Russia collide more clearly. Trump recognized the self-proclaimed interim president, Juan Guaidó, early on and is keeping all options open, including a military operation. Russia has been supporting incumbent President Nicolás Maduro with loans for the purchase of Russian weapons and for oil production, among other things.
Sanctions against Putin's Allies
When it comes down to direct American-Russian relations, Putin cannot be satisfied at all with U.S. policy. Under pressure from Congress, the Treasury Department imposed further sanctions against more than 270 Russian politicians, businessmen and companies, as well as secret agents. These were for many reasons − including interference in U.S. elections, the Sergei and Yulia Skripal case in Britain and the conflict in Ukraine.
In the case of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is important for Russia, Trump prefers American interests and is calling on those involved to stop the project. This annoys Putin, and also German politicians and business representatives.
Difficult To Deal with Trump
In this respect, the image of Trump as Putin's spineless puppet is not supported. It is true that Trump accommodates Putin by weakening the American state and putting relations with U.S. allies at risk, but Trump also does this in the interest of his supporters.
Trump is not free with respect to Russian policy in particular, but rather he is subject to pressure from Congress. He must avoid anything that looks like a secret agreement with Putin − for the sake of his legitimacy as president. This also explains his harsh attacks on the U.S. intelligence agencies.
When Trump Denies Russian Interference in the Election Campaign, It Is To Save His Legitimacy.
Trump's spontaneous tweets and erratic actions make Russia appear more trustworthy and thus stronger. But this also makes it difficult for Putin to implement strategy, maintain the adversarial image of the U.S. and take unexpected action himself.
This would have been easier with a predictable U.S. president, like Hillary Clinton − especially if she had only been elected to office by a narrow margin. The question remains whether this was the aim of the alleged Russian influence on the elections, or whether Putin miscalculated with Trump.