The investigations over Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election continue to dominate the headlines. But Russian President Vladimir Putin is also acting in other parts of the world in ways that attract far less domestic news coverage, yet could be just as damaging to the long-term interests of the United States.
“The oxygen for the last six months has been taken up by Russian meddling in the election” says Jonathan Pidluzny, assistant professor of government at Morehead State University. “Instead of coalescing around a new vision for U.S. foreign policy going forward, Americans are fighting one another, while [Putin] throws gasoline on these fires, each in areas of significant strategic concerns for the U.S.”
KET’s Kentucky Tonight explored how Russia’s subterfuge and President Donald Trump’s responses to it are shaping a range of American foreign policy concerns. In addition to Pidluzny, the guests were Dina Badie, an assistant professor of government and international studies at Centre College; Gregory Hall, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce; and Timothy Rich, an assistant professor in the political science department at Western Kentucky University.
A Report Card on the Trump Administration
Although it’s still early in his presidency, Donald Trump receives mixed grades on his foreign policy performance from the professors. Centre College’s Dina Badie says the Russia investigation is overshadowing the Trump administration’s international efforts, but at the same time she says the president has been rhetorically inconsistent on a range of issues from the importance of NATO to America’s role in Syria. Badie says where Trump has acted so far, he’s not pursued a course that is dramatically different from his predecessor, President Barak Obama.
UK’s Gregory Hall says Trump has framed his presidency in terms of ‘making America great again,’ but that’s not yet resulted in a coherent foreign policy. He says one challenge is that many crucial U.S. State Department positions remain unfilled six months into the Trump’s tenure.
“I find the policy disjointed in many areas – too many contradictions between the White House and Pentagon and State [Department],” Hall says. “In terms of implementation, there’s a lot of work to be done but the president, I think, is beginning to get a feel for the world stage and the actors who occupy that stage.”
The job does have a steep learning curve. Timothy Rich of WKU says Trump is realizing that issues that looked simple on the campaign trail are in reality much harder to handle from the Oval Office. For example Rich says the North Korea situation is far more complex than the president understood, and that Trump overestimated what China can do and is willing to do to intervene on the Korean peninsula.
But the administration has had some successes, according to Pidluzny. He praises the president for reaffirming America’s commitment to NATO during a speech in Poland earlier this month. He also says the fight against ISIS is going better with gains in Iraq and Syria. And at a summit in Saudi Arabia, Pidluzny says Trump united most Sunni Arab leaders in a new commitment to battle radical Islamic ideology. He says those actions by the president have helped reassure some eastern European and Middle Eastern allies, but Pidluzny adds that he thinks America’s overall standing in the world has diminished under Trump’s watch.
The Cold War may have ended more than 25 years ago but unresolved issues between Russia and western nations continue to fuel diplomatic tensions around the world. Pidluzny says Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as one of the great geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century.
Lingering resentments about how the west treated the former Soviet Republicans in the ensuing years have inspired new ambitions by Putin. Pidluzny and Hall say Russia is being successful in ways far beyond its role in the U.S. presidential election last year.
“Russia is having it’s way right now strategically,” says Hall.
Those conflicts come out of Russia’s desire to maintain and expand its sphere of influence in the post-Cold War world. For example Putin has used political meddling or military incursion to thwart efforts by several former Soviet republics in eastern Europe to align with NATO or the European Union. Pidluzny says targeted sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration did little to keep the Russians in check in that region.
Now Trump is considering the possibility of selling American-produced liquefied natural gas in Eastern Europe. Pidluzny says that would “strike fear” in Russia because that nation’s economy is dependent on sales of its fossil fuel reserves. That could lead to an unstable Russia, which Pidluzny says is the only thing worse than a Russia run by Putin.
Russia’s desire for port access to the Mediterranean Sea led to its presence in Syria, which is another complication for the U.S. Putin backs the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while America supports moderate rebel forces in the Syrian civil war. The U.S. also hopes to check the spread of ISIS in Syria. Pidluzny and Hall say President Trump has made concessions in Syria that Russia has not yet reciprocated. Badie says that adds to the speculation about the true nature of Trump’s relationship with Putin.
“It does seem that Trump, publicly, has praised Putin as a great leader… and in so doing I think that opens door for Putin to meddle a little bit more,” says Badie. “He sees that there is more opportunity for him to perhaps project power in more regions of the world and that Trump is going to be to some extent complacent.”
Now Putin is reaching into the western hemisphere by strengthening his ties in Venezuela, a nation that’s been racked by violent political protests, economic collapse, and widespread food shortages in recent years.
“Russia has become one of the big sponsors of the Venezuelan regime in terms of arm shipments and financing,” says Pidluzny. “So you engage the Venezuela problem and you’re dealing with Russia all over again in a totally new sphere and that limits what [the U.S.] can do elsewhere.”
Putin’s two-tier strategy – drawing the U.S. into global hotspots it otherwise would have ignored, and undermining domestic unity by meddling in American elections – has been successful, Pidluzny says. It’s weakened the U.S. on the global stage and strengthened Russia’s bargaining position around the world, he says.
Over some objections by Trump, the U.S. House of Representatives is poised to pass legislation this week that would place tougher sanctions on Russia. Badie says the bipartisan support for those sanctions shows that members of Trump’s own party are skeptical about the president’s relationship with Putin. Even if Trump continues to go easy on Russia, Hall says Putin may have to contend with stronger opposition from Congress.
No Easy Options on North Korea
One region where Russia could play a bigger role than it has so far is in North Korea. Russia shares a small stretch of border with North Korea, and Rich says Russian companies are investing heavily in the closed nation.
Hall says North Korea values its relationship with Russia as a way to counter American hegemony. Using Russia to bring more pressure on the regime of Kim Jong-un is a missed opportunity, says Hall.
“In my assessment this is one of the biggest failures in U.S. policy and strategy for a long time, Hall says. “Russia has communicated in different channels at times that it wants to have more of a direct engagement in dealing with the North Korea problem.”
In the meantime, Rich says the Trump administration shouldn’t depend on China to intervene in North Korea. He says limiting trade won’t be effective since Chinese entrepreneurs do more business with North Korea than the Chinese government does. Plus Rich says the Chinese fear a collapse of North Korea because that could send millions of refugees flooding into relatively poor regions of China. Nor do the Chinese want a Korean peninsula ruled by a South Korean government backed by the United States, according to Rich.
Even if China took a harder line on North Korea, Rich says it would be wrong to assume that Kim would back down. He says that leaves American diplomats and military leaders concerned about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program with few good options.
“The big suggestion that I would have for Trump on North Korea is to think about what can you negotiate?” says Rich. “North Korea is not going to give up their nuclear weapons without getting something and in fact you may not want to start there.”
Since North Korean leaders believe they need a nuclear arsenal to protect the nation’s sovereignty and prevent an American invasion, Rich suggests encouraging North Korea to temporarily freeze its weapons program and allow international observers to conduct inspections. In return Hall says the U.S. could offer to suspend joint American and South Korean military maneuvers for brief time.
Although Rich and Badie don’t believe America will go to war with North Korea any time soon, tensions in the region have escalated in recent months as Kim continues to test his nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. Rich says there is concern in South Korea and Japan that Trump could act unilaterally against North Korea without considering the damage those countries would suffer in a conflict. Badie says that’s a good reason for caution on the part of the Trump Administration.
“I don’t think that war is imminent,” says Badie, but “the United States has to be very careful because a miscalculation or provocation could be what causes a war.”
Peace in the Middle East?
Badie says hopes for a peaceful resolution to tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have grown more distant under current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“He’s really, really shifted Israeli policy very, very hard to the right and the Trump Administration is just following along,” says Badie. “I think that that’s very dangerous, and that’s dangerous not only for the United States and for the Palestinians, it’s also not good for Israel.”
Earlier this year Netanyahu said peace hinges on two factors: for Israel to maintain total control of the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, and for Palestinians to recognize Israel as being a Jewish nation. Badie says both of those things preclude a peaceful, two-state solution.
And that will lead to more trouble for the region, says Rich.
“As long as there’s not a two-state solution, you’re simply encouraging anti-Israeli sentiment in the region,” Rich says.
Pidluzny says Israelis are “increasingly kind of okay” with the status quo, especially given that Israel’s intelligence gathering and defense measures have made the nation as secure as it’s been in a long time.
“I want to see a two-state solution…. I’m saying, how do you get there?” says Pidluzny. “For me it gets harder and harder to imagine how one gets there with every year that passes.”