The Trump administration wants a better relationship with Russia. The problem is that Russia increasingly looks like it doesn’t want one — and is actively taking steps that are pushing that relationship to a new low.
After the White House issued a statement Monday saying it would attack the Syrian regime if it launched another chemical attack on its citizens, a senior Russian lawmaker said the statement was just an excuse to attack Syria again.
Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry canceled a long-planned meeting between senior US and Russian diplomatic officials. The Kremlin said it was retaliating because the US had just announced increased sanctions on individuals and organizations that helped with Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
"After yesterday's decision on sanctions, the situation does not allow for a round of such a dialogue," the ministry said in a statement.
The State Department countered that message with a surprisingly undiplomatic shot of its own. “Let’s remember that these sanctions didn’t just come out of nowhere. Our targeted sanctions were imposed in response to Russia’s ongoing violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbor, Ukraine,” said State’s spokesperson Heather Nauert in a statement.
By itself, this war of words would already be a big deal. But it’s not the only sign of deteriorating ties between Washington and Moscow.
This past Sunday, the US shot down a Syrian warplane, the first time America had done that during Syria’s civil war. That angered the Russians — allies of the Syrian government — to the point that its Ministry of Defense threatened to target US or allied aircraft flying over Syria west of the Euphrates River. The US ignored Moscow’s harsh words and shot down a Syrian drone Tuesday, something certain not to go unnoticed in the Kremlin.
Earlier Wednesday, meanwhile, a senior FBI official reiterated that Russia had actively tried to help Trump win the election, a fact the president denies.
Jim Townsend, a former top Obama defense official working on Russia, worries that this is the beginning of a dangerous new phase in US-Russian relations, and that there are no cooler voices trying to calm things down.
“It’s “a ‘F*** you! No, f*** you!’ beginning of a playground fight,” he said in an interview. “Where are the adults?”
So instead of trying to holding hands, it looks like both countries are aiming to get their fingers around each other’s necks. And it doesn’t look like the situation will improve.
The US continues to anger Russia
During the election, it was clear the Trump campaign wanted better ties to Russia. Not only did Trump praise Putin, but against the advice of most GOP foreign policy leaders, the campaign removed a provision calling for the US to send arms to Ukraine from the GOP platform. And once he got in office, Trump even looked into lifting sanctions on Russia.
But things have changed dramatically. Just yesterday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. The goal from America’s side was to show the US still stood by its allies in Kiev.
Mattis, discussing the US-Ukrainian relationship, reiterated what he described as Washington’s commitment to the nation’s defense. “The United States stands with you,” Mattis said after the meeting. “We support you in the face of the threats to sovereignty, to international law, or to the international order,” he added in a clear allusion to Russia.
Mattis’s words are backed up by his actions. He’s helped initiate Operation Atlantic Resolve, which is the largest US military buildup in Europe since the end of the Cold War. There are now around 6,500 US troops in the region.
And on June 1, the Pentagon even requested more money next fiscal year for the European Reassurance Initiative, a program where the US helps its allies in Europe defend against threats — mainly Moscow.
Standing by Ukraine and other European allies, while sanctioning Russian people and organizations, is not the way to put Washington back in Moscow’s good graces. It’s the opposite, and only goes to show how much this administration is changing its tune on Russia.
Townsend says the tensions between the two countries raise the possibility of a dangerous miscalculation, particularly in Syria, where both countries have warplanes flying through similar parts of the country on bombing runs.
“I would say they got very complicated, which means it is easier to make the wrong move that can result in a catastrophic incident like an accident that causes casualties,” he said.