President Trump just explained why he ignored the advice of his top advisers and congratulated Russian President Vladimir Putin on his rigged election win: He thinks Moscow can help solve big global problems, including the ones the Kremlin created in the first place.
Trump sent out two tweets Wednesday trying to explain why he congratulated Putin on his sham election victory even though Trump’s staff specifically told him not to. Trump also ignored his staff’s request that he press the Russian leader on the Kremlin’s apparent responsibility for a nerve gas attack against a former Russian spy living in the UK.
“I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump wrote. “They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race. Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the “smarts.” Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET). PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH!”
There’s just one problem: Russia is responsible for creating most of the national security problems Trump mentioned, which means there’s no reason to think Putin would have any real interest in working with the US to solve them.
Take Syria. Russian forces are the main reason Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is consolidating control of most of the country after seven years of brutal fighting. Without Putin’s intervention, it’s hard to imagine Assad driving a car around Syria last week, which would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
That, in part, is why the tweets below are so odd: Trump is basically asking an arsonist to help put out the fires he set in the first place.
“The US should hold Russia accountable, not seek cooperation on the problems it created,” Alina Polyakova, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, told me.
You can find the tweets below, as well as a quick annotated guide to the stranger and more jarring aspects of the president’s reasoning.
I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing.......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
.....They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, Iran and even the coming Arms Race. Bush tried to get along, but didn’t have the “smarts.” Obama and Clinton tried, but didn’t have the energy or chemistry (remember RESET). PEACE THROUGH STRENGTH!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
Russia worked with the US in 2003 to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program as part of the “Six Party Talks.” The problem is Moscow isn’t doing much to help solve that issue now; instead, it’s helping North Korea avoid sanctions meant to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs.
Last December, Reuters reported that Russian tankers had transferred fuel to North Korean ships at sea at least three times in defiance of United Nations rules. And last year, at least eight North Korean ships carrying fuel sailed from Russia to North Korea despite officially declaring that they were headed to other destinations.
While there isn’t definitive evidence that those ships violated international law, experts say the activity bore classic signs of sanction evasion tactics. In other words, Russia seems to be doing the literal opposite of what Trump wants.
Syria, ISIS, and Iran
As mentioned above, Russia fuels the Syrian conflict, but Russia’s meddling there takes many forms — and each one offers a different reason to doubt Moscow has any interest in working with Trump there.
Russia, to take one example, is impeding any serious effort to find a diplomatic solution to the fighting. In late February, it took three days for the UN to approve a resolution for a month-long ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta due to Russian objections. Moscow’s representative initially vetoed the resolution on February 22, saying that reports of widespread civilian casualties were nothing more than “mass psychosis.” Instead, Russia proposed amendments that would allow it and Syrian forces to continue targeting anti-Assad groups.
More than 1,000 civilians have died in the Assad regime’s accelerated air and ground campaign in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the capital Damascus, over the past month.
As for ISIS, Russia says it is in Syria to kill terrorists — which is also Trump’s stated Syria policy — but has instead targeted anti-Assad rebels and indiscriminately bombed civilian areas. Last month, Russian mercenaries fought against US forces in Syria. No Americans died or were injured, but about 200 Russians perished in the firefight.
Finally, Russia is a major Iranian ally, and fights alongside Tehran in Syria. Iran provides fights and weaponry to its proxies and other militia groups, like Hezbollah, that help keep Assad in power. Russia has not condemned Iran’s weapons influx into Syria.
And here’s one example: With Russian and Iranian help, Assad retook control of the major city of Aleppo in December 2016 after months of brutal fighting. That proved a turning point in the war and allowed Assad to regain control of the country.
So if Trump wants Putin to help in Syria, he’ll have to convince Putin to do the opposite of everything he’s tried to accomplish over the past few years.
Trump’s reference to the ongoing war there is particularly bizarre. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and seized parts of Crimea, a southern peninsula, and eastern parts of the country. A low-level war has raged there ever since.
But to be extra clear: There would be no conflict in Ukraine if Russia had not invaded it. And as my colleague Zack Beauchamp reported, there are no signs the war will end anytime soon.
Here’s why: A close Putin friend, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has a relationship with a mercenary group called Wagner. Wagner has reportedly played a major part in Russia’s incursion, recruiting gunmen to fight on Russia’s behalf without appearing in its uniform. Last summer, the US Treasury officially sanctioned Wagner and its director, Dmitry Utkin, for threatening “the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
So expect more Russian involvement in fueling Ukraine’s war, not less.
“Coming Arms Race”
It’s unclear what Trump really meant by this, but here’s a possibility: On March 1, Putin bragged during a major speech that his country now possessed a nuclear-powered cruise missile that could reach the United States, nuclear weapons that could evade any missile defense system, and unstoppable drone submarines that could blow up foreign ports.
There’s no evidence Russia has any of these capabilities yet, but it made some experts nervous that Russia had more advanced weaponry than America. But Putin’s boast was perhaps partially in response to the new Nuclear Posture Review the Pentagon released in February. The report details America’s desire to develop newer and smaller nuclear bombs, in part to make them more usable.
In effect, Trump may be fueling an arms race with Moscow — even though he’s asking for Russia’s help to end the escalation.
Trump clearly still thinks he can turn Putin from a foe into a friend. Putin seems likelier to take Trump’s naiveté and refusal to call his bluff as a green light to cause even more of the problems Trump keeps asking him to solve.