In a Big Surprise, Trump Congratulates Putin 

by Stephen Bryen

News reports say that President Trump was advised in a briefing paper “DO NOT CONGRATULATE PUTIN.”  Even so, Trump did so, tying his congratulatory remark to what President Trump says is an upcoming meeting with Putin to discuss the unfolding nuclear arms race.

The Russians have been raising the ante on nuclear weapons particularly in the past months, announcing new ICBMs, new nuclear torpedos and new hypersonic vehicles which, the US Military says it cannot stop.

Trump has also raised the price on Putin by seriously outspending the Russians across the board for military programs, something that was necessary anyway because of the deterioration of American conventional and strategic systems over the past decade or more, plus the wear and tear on tactical systems caused by interminable wars in Afghanistan (17 years!), Iraq (on and off for 20 years) and more recently Syria.

Indeed the bleeding of viable US defense resources has harmed America’s deterrence posture.  Worse still, America’s allies East and West have underspent on security, leaving themselves exposed even to low-end dictators like Kim Jong-un and big-time powerful hegemons particularly China.  In NATO Europe the Russians have been able to intimidate the Alliance even though they are short on equipment including tanks and aircraft –but NATO has even less and much of the NATO-committed equipment, like German’s few Leopard tanks are mostly inoperative, lacking spare parts and regular maintenance.

Yet the big issue in the realm of still-the-largest two global superpowers, is the US relationship with Russia.

Washington has been on an orgy of anti-Russian declarations and investigations, some of it certainly justified but none of it necessarily helpful in resolving the strategic dialog.

Indeed it is worthwhile to recall that the mass murderer Stalin was our ally in World War II because we needed him to tie down Hitler’s armies and ultimately to lead the invasion of Germany.  Certainly we paid a high price for Russian help (largely in the form of the occupation of Eastern Europe), but what choice did we have?  History will record that Russia absorbed a large portion of the Nazi onslaught (losing 20 million souls in the process), but was able to reconstitute its industry and military and launch an unprecedented counterattack driving across Europe and through Germany to Berlin.

Since World War II, even when Russia was full of gulags and still holding onto Eastern Europe and acting aggressively elsewhere, particularly in the Middle East, linked to its Arab allies (most importantly with Egypt and Syria), even to the point in 1973 of moving nuclear weapons in to support Egypt, where the US imposed a DEFCON 3 alert and was prepared to challenge the Russians, even then it was Henry Kissinger who in the midst of the Yom Kippur war flew into Moscow to parlay with Russia’s leaders.

Henry Kissinger with Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev at hunting lodge near Moscow, 1973

In short the grounds to ostracize Russia were far stronger in the past, yet the US reaction was not to cut off diplomacy but to step it up, while at the same time putting into operation the needed military steps in case the diplomatic approach failed.

Today there are three major issues involving Russia.  Foremost on the minds of Western governments is Russia’s support for a civil war in the Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimea.  Second is the rise in challenges by Russian air,naval and missile forces especially in the Baltic region and in the Black Sea.  Third is Russia’s attempt to interfere in US elections and probable tampering with America’s critical infrastructure through cyber warfare.

One needs to keep in mind in regard to each of these big concerns is the fact that neither the US nor its allies are exactly innocent when it comes to tampering and challenging the Russians.  The press in the west typically only reports information it is fed by the Pentagon, White House and from NATO.  Little about US and allied activities, probing Russia’s defenses, both in Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic area and in the Black Sea region, gets much notice, if any.  Nor can we avoid American and EU tampering in the Ukraine that helped precipitate the Ukraine crisis, or cyber intrusions of Russia sponsored by NSA and GCHQ in the UK.

In the now almost forgotten past, when Secretary of State William Rogers told the Symington Committee in 1970 that “Cambodia is one country where we can say with complete assurance that our hands are clean and our hearts are pure.”  He was not telling the truth.  While no one is exactly saying that today, we have to be extremely careful about what we say because there is a lot we don’t know as the machinations by the superpowers continue apace.

To sort out matters with Russia, negotiations have to cover these issues and many more.  President Trump has opened the door for the first meetings of heads of state to see if any of these issues can be bridged.  But is he flying on his own wing and prayer and does he have the support of key institutions including his own National Security Council?

The latest memo essentially warning the President not to congratulate Putin suggests that President Trump is not seeing eye to eye with his own advisors.  If this is the case, the possibility of progress with Russia and the imperative to calm down the nuclear calculus and resolve political disputes will be terribly difficult and the President will face dissonance from his own team that could scuttle any progress.  Faced with a dysfunctional administration, a partisan and fractionalized Congress and a completely hostile press in the United States and other Western capitals, it will be a miracle if any progress results.