For most of President Donald Trump’s tenure, his cabinet has tempered his instincts to appease his Russian counterpart. Despite the president’s baffling suck-ups to Vladimir Putin and his desire to improve the relationship, his administration has expanded sanctions against Moscow, expelled Russian spies and waged diplomatic and political warfare against Russian clients.
Sometimes, though, the president wins. It happened last weekend, when the White House and the Kremlin released a joint statement marking the 75th anniversary of U.S. and Soviet troops meeting at a bridge on the Elbe River, cutting Nazi Germany in half and setting the stage for the Allied victory in World War II.
For its first three paragraphs, the statement is a commemoration of the famous handshake between the two armies. But its final paragraph is a call for the two rivals to cooperate going forward. "The 'Spirit of the Elbe' is an example of how our countries can put aside differences, build trust, and cooperate in pursuit of a greater cause," it says. "As we work today to confront the most important challenges of the 21st century, we pay tribute to the valor and courage of all those who fought together to defeat fascism."
Trump administration officials tell me that senior Pentagon and State Department officials opposed that language. These officials say they worried that Trump was playing into the hands of Putin, who seeks to weaken America’s bond with its NATO allies and ultimately wants the U.S. to recognize a Russian sphere of influence in the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and Georgia.
More troubling, Trump initially agreed in a phone call with Putin to travel to Moscow next month for the commemoration of the Allied victory against the Nazis. That commemoration has since been canceled because of the coronavirus. When it is rescheduled, the White House has agreed to send National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.
As far the statement is concerned, it’s not as bad as Trump’s performance in 2018 with Putin at a one-day summit in Helsinki. There, he accepted the Russian line that Moscow did not interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign, despite his own intelligence community’s assessment that it certainly had. Nor is the Elbe commemoration statement as cringe-inducing as Trump’s meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador at the White House in 2017, a few hours he fired then-FBI director James Comey.
In that meeting, Trump bragged about firing the man in charge of the bureau investigating Russia’s election interference.
Also, the language in the Trump-Putin statement in 2020 echoes the commemoration statement issued in 2010 by former U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Unlike Trump, Obama in 2010 had already implemented a reset with Russia, following Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Nonetheless, the Elbe commemoration statement sends the wrong message at a moment when Russia continues to challenge America’s position in the world. In February, Russian jets buzzed U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea.
This month, the State Department published an internal government report that tracked Russian and Chinese propaganda during the pandemic and found that both countries were falsely claiming that the virus was a U.S.-designed bioweapon. Russia’s proxies continue to make war in eastern Ukraine and its forces continue to occupy Georgia.
The Trump-Putin statement also sends the wrong message to America’s allies in Eastern Europe. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, told me Tuesday that for him and others from countries that lived under the Iron Curtain, the river does not symbolize geopolitical cooperation.
The Elbe, which formed part of the border between East and West Germany during the Cold War, "was the dividing line between freedom and oppression," Ilves said. The Elbe statement would have been considered capitulation by cold warriors like Ronald Reagan, he said.
Trump’s Elbe commemoration statement is more in line with that of another former American president: Richard Nixon. At the end of his first term in office, Nixon conducted secret diplomacy with Communist China in part to strengthen the U.S. negotiating position with the Soviet Union on détente and arms control.
When Nixon finally did go to Beijing, he set in motion the trading partnership that now appears to be unraveling.
The problem with this thinking today is that Russia and China both have an interest in undermining an international system that — despite warnings from Chinese doctors, journalists and researchers — failed to alert the world about the coming pandemic.
That’s why Trump would be wise to drop any plans to pursue better relations with Putin, unless and until the Russian president returns the territory he stole from Georgia and Ukraine and renounces his own dreams to reconstitute the 20th century’s evil empire.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. Read Eli Lake's Reports - More Here.
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