WASHINGTON D.C.: President Donald Trump came to the White House promising a radical reset of US-Russia relations after years of rising tensions under his predecessor.
But barely one month into office, that plan appears to be on hold, and Trump’s White House team has taken on an increasingly Russophobic face.
After he repeatedly pledged to reach “a deal” with Vladimir Putin while hinting at downgraded relations with NATO and the European Union, Trump has yet to set a meeting with the Russian leader.
Meanwhile Vice President Mike Pence and top cabinet security and defense officials have gone to great lengths to reassure European leaders that Washington is not giving up on its allies.
While Trump still holds out the idea of striking up an amicable relationship with Putin, the administration took a distinct turn away from that stance last week with the replacement of pro-Moscow national security advisor Michael Flynn with Lieutenant General HR McMaster, a hawkish army veteran who sees Russia as the primary threat to US interests and global stability.
And next week, the Senate is expected to approve the appointment of Senator Dan Coats as Director of National Intelligence, adding another Putin skeptic to the president’s defense and national security team.
“There has been a major shift,” said Bruce Jones, vice president and director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
“My sense is at least we’ve seen an evolution to an approach that is more sensitive to the threat Russia poses to Europe and the US.”
Jake Sullivan, the former national security advisor to vice president Joe Biden, said the White House policy situation is “still unsettled.”
However, he said, McMaster’s arrival in Flynn’s place “could tip the balance.”
Allaying European worries
Trump has long expressed admiration for Putin and other hard-as-nails Russian autocrats.
But his hope of launching into the presidency with a new approach to Russia has been set back by scandals that have allowed critics to paint him as suspiciously soft on Moscow: the intelligence conclusion that Russia interfered in the US election to hurt Trump’s rival Hillary Clinton; alleged links between some of his campaign advisors and Russian intelligence; and the need to fire Flynn over his private discussions on sanctions with Russia’s ambassador.
The seeming slowdown or shift in his stance was most noteworthy, Jones said, with efforts in the past two weeks to assuage nervous European leaders over the new Washington administration’s intentions.
During the campaign Trump had repeatedly criticized NATO and suggested the core Atlantic Alliance may have passed its expiration date.
But last week Pence declared at a high-level Munich security conference, with German leader Angela Merkel in the audience, that the administration remains committed to strong transatlantic ties.
“The United States is and will always be your greatest ally. Be assured that President Trump and our people are truly devoted to our transatlantic union,” he said.
Days earlier, new Pentagon chief James Mattis told officials in Brussels that the NATO alliance was a “fundamental bedrock” for the United States.
Trump still wants ‘deal’ with Putin
Trump’s efforts to strike a new footing with Moscow have not gone away, and he and his close advisor Steve Bannon still set the agenda.
They have suggested a readiness to lighten tough sanctions placed on Russia by the previous administration over its seizure of Crimea in exchange for cooperation elsewhere, particularly in fighting Islamic extremism.
“If we could get along, it would be a positive thing, not a negative thing,” Trump reiterated in a press conference on February 16.
“It would be much easier for me to be tough on Russia, but then we’re not going to make a deal.”
Taking on anti-Moscow hardliners could help Trump pursue overtures with Putin from a position of strength, analysts say.
But Sullivan said that, even with the buildup of hawkish conservatives in the White House, “There is still not a consensus inside the administration.”
“Trump can still get on the phone with Putin from time to time and do deals.”