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4:32 PM Mon, Oct. 15th

Column | A new Russia story that’s largely been overlooked

As conflict and confusion on Capitol Hill continues to swirl around Fusion GPS, Christopher Steele, and the salacious dossier, a new Russia story broke much more quietly this week.

Based on firsthand accounts of an early National Security Council meeting, the Trump Administration purportedly proposed drawing down U.S. troop levels in Europe (specifically, in the Baltics) to “please” Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At face value, there’s some appeal to President Trump’s oft-repeated wish that we get along with Putin’s Russia. To be sure, peaceful relations between nuclear-armed powers are always preferable. And the United States should always strive to cooperate with partners on global security threats from violent extremism to climate change.

Unfortunately, Putin has shown us time and again that he has no interest in cooperation. The strategic interests and fundamental values of the United States are very different those of Russia.

Throughout the Bush, Obama, and now Trump presidencies, Putin has flouted international norms regarding sovereignty in European nations. He has supported the murderous regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, covering for the dictator’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. And he has engaged in a campaign of election influence in multiple nations with the clear goal of undermining public faith in democracy - these efforts most recently detailed in a comprehensive report issued by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin.

All of this aggressive foreign policy is pursued in the hopes of not just returning post-USSR Russia to world power status, but also to distract from a lagging economy. Putin is dependent on his image as a muscular strongman who is making Russia great again abroad because he isn’t exactly doing it at home.

This economic weakness is the reason that coordinated international sanctions are such effective means of pushing back against Putin’s bad behavior. Those levied against his regime for his incursions into Ukraine did real damage - and they were painful for our European partners to implement. For nations like Germany, no business with Russian state-owned companies meant losing one of the biggest natural gas suppliers in Eurasia, which translates to a hike in prices for consumers.

The fact that European nations took economic punishment to stand for our shared values is what makes the idea of a troop drawdown there so absurd. Leave it to “President Deals” to hire a hedge fund director with no national security experience – here’s to draining that swamp – who then proposed a good faith gesture towards a historic adversary at the expense of stalwart allies, all in exchange for…nothing.

One could argue that this story isn’t all that significant, given that the purported proposal never even saw the light of day. Unfortunately, this is just one instance in a much wider pattern of unusual deference to Russia from the Trump Administration.

Consider Russian buzzing of U.S. planes in Syria, submarines off the coast of Delaware, and missile treaty violations going unaddressed; fox in henhouse-esque suggestions of a joint election cybersecurity venture with Moscow; Jared Kushner’s attempts at establishing a secret channel for communication with the Kremlin during the presidential transition; former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s conversations about sanctions relief during the same; and the administration’s lagging implementation of bipartisan sanctions against Russia last year.

Then, of course, there are the president’s own words and actions. He has repeatedly heaped praise upon Putin’s intelligence and leadership, questioned whether or not he has killed journalists (he has), and sought him out for private conversations sans-U.S. translators at international events, all while also having repeatedly attacked our NATO allies, claimed Russia was not in Ukraine (they are), and even divulged classified information to the visiting Russian foreign minister in the White House.

And all of that doesn’t even touch on the communications – and very real possibility of collusion – between the Trump orbit and Moscow during the 2016 election.

News that any administration considered a unilateral drawdown in Europe to the benefit of Putin’s Russia would be troubling; with the Trump Administration’s wider pattern of behavior, it’s worse. It should be a given that the United States stands by its allies, doesn’t make free concessions to its adversaries, and understands the fundamentally different values and strategic interests of democracies and authoritarian states.

Here’s hoping that no further giveaways to Russia are in the works - and that sooner rather than later, the Trump Administration wraps their heads around why this sort of behavior is a bad idea for American security in the first place.