When President Trump was elected, some of my biggest fears about him had to do with his opinions on Russia.
He consistently sided with Putin, called him a great guy, and even said that he wanted Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails. I assumed that his campaign had worked with Russia to steal and strategically distribute the Democratic National Committee’s emails, like how Nixon had hired people to break into the DNC, starting the Watergate scandal. Since this was illegal, Putin would have blackmail material on Trump that he could use to make Trump lift sanctions, undermine NATO, or even refuse to intervene if Russia annexed more of its neighbors. My fears only seemed to compound over time as Trump kept speaking favorably of Putin and more news broke about his ties to Russia.
More recently though, I’ve realized that the picture is far more complicated and confusing because of what Trump has substantively done to Russia.
When looking at Trump’s actions toward Russia, it’s a bad idea to consider them in isolation: They should be compared against the two other presidents who have dealt with Putin, Barack Obama and George W. Bush. In that context, Trump seems especially hawkish toward Russia. Obama refused to sell weapons to Ukraine like anti-tank missiles that would cripple Russia’s allied forces there; Trump approved the sale of those missiles. In February, near Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, several hundred Russian mercenaries fighting for Bashar Assad’s government tried to capture an oil well from an American backed militia — between 200 and 300 were subsequently killed by American air and artillery strikes. This is the first instance where American combat forces killed Russian ones since the Korean War in the 1950s: There is little a president could do that would be more aggressive toward Russia than killing hundreds of their special forces.
Bush had no problem using military force to achieve his aims — we have two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to show for that. But even as Russia invaded Georgia, a small country to its south, Bush did nothing close to wiping 300 Russian soldiers off the map with airstrikes. If all that you knew about Trump’s interactions with Russia was that he had sold missiles to a country it was actively at war with and that his generals had killed hundreds of Russian troops in an airstrike, he would seem like the most hawkish president toward Russia since Ronald Reagan.
The Magnitsky Act is a 2012 law that severely restricts the access of Russian oligarchs to American banks. In response to it, Putin cruelly and vindictively banned the adoption of Russian children by Americans. Getting rid of the Magnitsky Act would greatly help Putin by enriching the oligarchs he needs to stay in power, making its repeal one of his top priorities. President Obama reluctantly signed the act into law after opposing its passage because he said that it would hurt his attempts to improve relations with Russia. Does that opposition make the president beholden to Russia?
When Trump opposed a similar bill that sanctioned Russia in response to its election meddling, essentially citing the same reasons that Obama did in 2012, many Democrats called him a puppet to Putin, including me. This goes to show that even Trump’s seemingly pro-Russian behavior could be explained by a genuine desire to improve U.S.-Russian relations and not necessarily by leverage Putin gained because Trump colluded with him. Just last week, Trump expelled 60 Russian spies in response to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent, in Britain.
This isn’t to vindicate Trump, but to point out how confusing the scandal is. By substantive actions, it looks like Putin has no blackmail on Trump, enabling him to kill Russian soldiers and sell missiles to Russia’s enemies. And yet Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has been indicted for laundering Russian money and lying to the FBI about it, along with other Trump associates like Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser. He wouldn’t be talking about pardoning these people and firing Robert Mueller if all of his dealings with Russia were above board. Essentially, in terms of the Russia investigation, Trump acts as if he did some crooked deal with the Russians, giving them blackmail material over him. But in terms of what truly matters to Putin — things like sanctions and military action — Trump is either acting about the same as Obama or being much harsher.
Only time will reveal which version of Trump is in charge and which is an illusion of circumstance.