A Ray of Hope on our Russia Policy

As Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigative team continue their probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, meetings with diplomats and other Kremlin-associated individuals are coming to light with increasing frequency and carry ever more troubling implications. Some pundits now predict a presidential firing of Mueller and a resultant constitutional crisis. No matter how our domestic drama eventually plays out, it is not a happy time for the republic.

Moreover, at the G20 Summit in Hamburg earlier this month, President Trump’s obsequious behavior toward Russian President Putin and their second, ad hoc bilateral meeting without even an American translator present are cause for deep concern. Optimism on the Russian front is a quantity in short supply in Washington’s foreign policy community.

Nonetheless, there are new rays of hope. On Saturday leaders in the House and Senate announced that they had come to a bipartisan agreement on sanctions legislation targeting Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election, its ongoing human rights abuses, its illegal annexation of Crimea, and its continuing military involvement in eastern Ukraine. The bill’s wording would make it extremely difficult for President Trump to undercut the Russia sanctions without congressional approval. If that were not troublesome enough, the carefully crafted legislation bundles the Russia sanctions with those on Iran and North Korea, which the White House supports.

A presidential veto of the bill would entail serious political risks, not the least of which would be the likelihood of an embarrassing congressional override. On Sunday facing that reality, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, soon to be the new White House Press Secretary, declared that the President would support the legislation.

Three aspects of the sanctions legislation bear mentioning. The first is Republican congressional defiance of President Trump in matters Russian. A preview in late March was the 97-2 Senate vote in favor of Montenegro’s NATO membership in the face of intense counter-pressure from the Kremlin. The House has been slower to register its displeasure with Trump’s anti-NATO rhetoric and pro-Russian utterances, but Speaker Paul Ryan seems to have turned around the mood of the Republican Conference.

The second notable feature is the bipartisan nature of support for the sanctions. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has emerged as an extremely effective leader of the Democrats in policy on Russia. Assisted by his able staffer Damian Murphy, Cardin played a pivotal role in drafting the bill and corralling unanimous Democratic support for it.

Third, of course, if President Trump does sign the sanctions legislation, it cannot help but antagonize Putin. One wonders what might have been discussed about sanctions in the Trump-Putin private meeting in Hamburg, not to mention in earlier conversations with Russian operatives involving at different times the President’s son, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions among others. Putin is not exactly an expert on genuine democracies with a separation of powers. So he may consider Trump weak – certainly the worst possible insult in the U.S. President’s mind – or simply dishonest or unreliable. None of these reactions would bode well for U.S.-Russia relations.

What about those relations? Given the low profile taken by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the unprecedented absence of nominees for other leadership posts in his Department, foreign policy observers have been scratching their heads, wondering who’s in charge of the Russia account. Here, I am happy to report, there is finally some good news.

Over the weekend the administration announced its intention to nominate A. Wess Mitchell as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Earlier in the month Kurt Volker was tapped to be U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Both are inspired choices.

Mitchell, a highly intelligent young Texan with an understanding of European history and politics, is co-founder and President of the Center for European Policy Analysis. Under his leadership CEPA has rapidly become one of Washington’s premier think-tanks.

Volker, one of America’s most distinguished career diplomats, served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO in the George W. Bush administration. For the past several years he has been executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University based in Washington, D.C.

Both men possess the kind of foreign policy expertise, including on Russia, that has been grievously undervalued by President Trump. One can only hope that he will now give them the latitude to negotiate and conduct other diplomatic business, and most importantly will then heed their counsel.

The last few weeks do not leave one brimming with optimism. As stated earlier, at the Hamburg G20 President Trump gave one of his solo ad hoc performances, excluding from the meetings with Putin both H.R. McMaster, his highly knowledgeable, no-nonsense National Security Advisor, and Fiona Hill, Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council staff and co-author of a highly acclaimed biography of Putin.

Yet hope springs eternal. Perhaps the nominations of Mitchell and Volker signify a turning point in the Trump administration’s Russia policy. My judgment and instincts tell me otherwise. I hope I am wrong.

Michael Haltzel, former foreign policy advisor to Vice President (then-Senator) Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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