Despite Soft Rhetoric, Trump Administration Draws Hard Line On Russia
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
We're going to head overseas now. That's because Russia has been back in the news with escalating diplomatic tensions between that country and the West. Britain, the U.S. and their allies have been expelling Russian diplomats, and Russia has been responding in kind. The U.S. response has brought up questions about President Trump's tough policies, which don't exactly line up with his sometimes-friendly rhetoric about Russia. For more on this we, called up John Herbst. He served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 and is currently the director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center. I started by asking him to catch us up on the diplomatic tit for tat.
JOHN HERBST: The events of the past two weeks are pretty clear. A former intelligence agent of Russia who had been - become a Western agent was poisoned with a chemical weapon that was developed by the Russians, something called novichok. And the evidence pointed clearly towards Moscow.
The Brits gave the Russians a chance to somehow provide an explanation, and they chose not to use the opportunity. As a result, they then expelled 23 Russian diplomats - mainly spies or maybe all spies - and they appealed for help, support from the United States and from their allies. Twenty-seven nations wound up expelling Russian diplomats - principally, if not entirely, spies. The United States has expelled the most, 60.
MCCAMMON: President Trump, of course, has expressed a desire to be friends with Russia, and he's been criticized for - for lack of a better term - being soft on Russia, at least in terms of his rhetoric. And yet, this is a pretty hardline stance the U.S. has just taken. How do you see these actions and how do you measure them against the president's public comments?
HERBST: This is a really peculiar period in American foreign policy and particularly in foreign policies towards Russia. The president seems to have a peculiar affection for the Kremlin and for Mr. Putin. And we see this in his many public utterances, including most recently when he congratulated Putin on his victory in a sham election.
At the same time, the policies of his administration have been significantly better than the policies of the Obama administration - significantly tougher. For example, the National Security Strategy lists Russia and China as our principal challenges. President Obama said infamously that Russia was a regional power. President Trump - his administration decided to send lethal weapons - antitank missiles, javelins - to Ukraine, something that Mr. Obama was too timid to do. So you have a much tougher policy vis-a-vis the Kremlin today. But again, the president's rhetoric, as you've mentioned, is odd. It's not consistent with the policy.
MCCAMMON: Why do you think that is, especially given the way he talks about Russia?
HERBST: I think that there are at least three things in play. First of all, all of his advisers are very sensible on this subject. That's true of his outgoing national security team, meaning Tillerson at State and McMaster at the NSC. And Mattis, who remains at Defense, has a very realistic understanding of the problems of Kremlin foreign policy. So the advice he gets is excellent.
Factor two - Congress is strongly understanding of the Russian challenge. The Democrats, of course, are still angry about the 2016 election. The Republicans have traditionally been tougher on Russia than the Democrats. They were a little, let's say, cautious in the first couple of months of the Trump administration because they didn't run a - want to run afoul the president. But when there were some early indications back in late January of 2017 that Trump was going to review our sanctions policy on Russia, McConnell in the Senate and Ryan in the House spoke up. And congressional policy followed with the passage of significant sanctions legislation last summer.
The third factor is the whole political circumstance of the Trump administration. Trump's perceived softness on Russia is a political liability. And at certain points, I think that kicks in, and that also encourages the president to move in what I consider to be the right direction.
MCCAMMON: Ambassador, what else will you be watching for in the coming days and weeks as this situation continues? And do you see it escalating further?
HERBST: Well, let me make one point. I think that the public discussion of what's happened over the past two weeks has missed something important. Expulsions, even though dramatic, and when you have 27 countries combining to expel Russian diplomats, that's historically unprecedent, significant. But ultimately, it's just expulsions. Expulsions are not - do not cause major pain in the Kremlin.
I think given what the Kremlin did in Britain, the response should be stronger. Britain, by itself, has the ability to pose serious pain on the Kremlin for this because the Russians depend upon financial markets. Russians love to live in Britain to buy expensive British real estate. They could take steps against the people who support Putin to be very painful. So can the United States. That's what should happen next.
MCCAMMON: That's former Ambassador John Herbst, director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. He joined us here in our studios. Ambassador, thank you.
HERBST: Thank you.
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