After months of extending his hand to Vladimir Putin, is Donald Trump going to get tough on Russia?
That’s what the president-elect on Wednesday suggested he might just do, given what he called the “good chance” that he might not get along with the Russian president after all.
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The claim contradicted Trump’s personal flattery of Putin and his repeated pledges to “get along great” with Putin’s Russia, and thus fell on decidedly skeptical ears in Washington.
But amid explosive evidence of Russian influence in the November election and unsubstantiated charges that Trump himself may have been compromised by the Kremlin, Trump’s team has shifted its tone on Russia-from an emphasis on the benefits of cooperation with Moscow to underscoring why Putin will respect and even fear the U.S. under Trump.
“Russia will have much greater respect for our country when I’m leading than when other people have led it,” Trump told reporters at his Wednesday press conference.
Echoing that language around the same time was his secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, who suggested in his Senate confirmation testimony that Putin’s military actions in Ukraine and Syria were the product of alleged Obama administration weakness.
And last week, Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway asserted-despite the strong belief of the U.S. intelligence community and the public evidence of Russian support for Trump-that Moscow “didn’t want [Trump] elected” because of his calls for a stronger U.S. military, modernization of nuclear weapons, and new oil and gas exploration.
To the contrary, U.S officials and many Russia experts warn that Putin may be licking his chops over a seemingly malleable new counterpart with no foreign policy experience and a record of seeking Putin’s approval. (“[W]ill Putin become my new best friend?” Trump asked in a tweet before a 2013 visit to Moscow for a beauty pageant there.)
And an Obama White House official contemptuously dismissed the claim that President Barack Obama’s reticence to use military force had been an invitation to Russian aggression. “We’ll decline to comment on Russian propaganda,” said national security council spokesman Ned Price.
Trump may have little choice in the current political environment but to present himself as approaching Putin from a position of strength and even possible confrontation. “Do you honestly believe that Hillary [Clinton] would be tougher on Putin than me?” he told reporters Wednesday.
That was a contrast with his warning in late October that his Democratic rival’s talk of imposing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, where Russia’s military conducts air strikes, might trigger World War III. “Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk,” Trump said.
But one source who has spoken to Trump’s team about Russia policy said he believes that the incoming president genuinely thinks that a diplomatic thaw with Moscow should be backed by strength.
“It’s very important for our relations with Putin that he not get the wrong impression that the United States can get pushed around,” said this source, adding that Trump would send “a clear message to Putin that we are not trying to remove him from power, we are not trying to humiliate him, and we are not trying to diminish Russia-as long as he understands our red lines.”
More than once on Wednesday, Tillerson used logic akin to a theory of bad parenting. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Obama’s alleged weakness had in effect incited Putin’s challenges to U.S. policy in Ukraine and Syria.
“Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia,” the silver-haired Texan said, using markedly stronger language than Trump has to date. Russia “invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war,” he added.
But the former ExxonMobil CEO quickly went on to cast blame on Obama for those actions. “It was in the absence of American leadership that this door was left open and unintended signals were sent,” Tillerson said. “We sent weak or mixed signals with ‘red lines’ that turned into green lights.”
The would-be diplomat said that he would have recommended a tougher response to Putin’s March 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula than the one adopted by Obama, who imposed economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation on Moscow.
Tillerson said he would have sent defensive arms to Ukraine’s military and deployed aerial surveillance along the country’s eastern border, which Russian military forces later crossed to support a pro-Russian insurgency in the country’s east.
“I think what Russian leadership would have understood is a powerful response that indicated, yes, you took Crimea but this stops here,” Tillerson said.
Despite that claim, one former U.S. government official said he was struck by the general absence from Tillerson’s testimony of candid opinions about Russia’s worldview informed by his extensive business dealings with Putin’s Kremlin. Tillerson also conceded under questioning that he has not spoken in detail about Russia policy with Trump.
And despite the new emphasis on tough talk, Trump-shrugging off concerns about Russian influence-clearly remains hopeful that he will hit it off with a Russian leader he has yet to meet in person.
“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks?,” he said Wednesday. “That’s called an asset, not a liability.”