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America’s Russian Conundrum

Few political issues have amplified the general anxiety level within the American, and perhaps global, citizenry quite as much as the Trump administration’s unusual relationship with, and views toward, Russia. On the primary and general election campaign trails, it was a sustained basis of both concern and attack for the president’s former rivals. This week, the issue has once again returned to the forefront of global political discourse.

Late last week, the news cycle was set ablaze with the revelation that despite prior denials, National Security Advisor, Gen. Michael Flynn, is reported to have discussed the lifting of sanctions with a Russian diplomat prior to assuming his post. Then on Monday, the ferocity of the scandal forced Flynn’s resignation. Yet, the scandal’s growth was not halted with Flynn’s ouster, but rather, redirected toward the president after it was revealed that Department of Justice and national security officials had previously warned the White House Council about Flynn’s conduct and his potential susceptibility to blackmail by Russian operatives. Matters have been further complicated by the release of a report which indicates that senior members of the Trump campaign had been in regular contact with Russian officials.

President Trump himself has dutifully stoked the fears of undue Russian influence that many people now harbor by repeatedly praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. As early as 2007, President Trump heralded Putin’s governing effectiveness, stating, “he’s doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.”

In 2015 as a presidential candidate, and despite a Pew poll released several months prior which clearly indicated the exact opposite, Trump perpetuated the myth of Putin’s global respectability while accepting a compliment from the Russian president, stating “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”

Even more alarming is the president’s refusal to firmly condemn the heinous methodology Putin’s Russia employs to realize its authoritarian ambitions. The president has exhibited an acute inability to admit that the Kremlin has virtually annihilated any semblance of the continued existence of a free press within Russia, nor has he accepted that Putin’s critics have a mysterious habit of being imprisoned or entombed.

Yet the single-most morally egregious portion of the Trump administration’s narrative is the recurrent invocation of moral equivalence between the conduct of Russia and that of the United States. Mere days after the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, admonished Russia for its conduct in Crimea, the president shrugged off Bill O’Reilly’s claim that Putin was a “killer,” stating, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”

With all of these factors in mind, it’s difficult to envision a scenario that sees the successful implementation of any foreign policy initiative that directly or indirectly curbs Russian power. As it stands, all signs indicate that the White House still intends to stabilize and improve relations with Moscow. After all, the president further encapsulated his longstanding sentiments toward Russia a mere two weeks ago, stating, “I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world, that’s a good thing.”

The Trump White House has only added to the confusion over its Russia policy.

In their first week in office, reports indicated that the Trump administration was exploring options for driving a wedge between Russia and Iran. However, shortly after the White House placed Iran “on notice,” the Kremlin came to the defense of its ally, effectively dashing any hopes for the generation of a meaningful bilateral solution. Then in a somewhat surprising about-face, the White House abolished Obama-levied sanctions that prohibited commerce between American firms and Russia’s premier spy agency.

More unnerving yet, is the discontinuity among top officials within the Trump administration with regards to their views toward Russia. During a Thursday afternoon press conference, President Trump reiterated his desire to get along with the Moscow, and forcefully labeled concerns over unnatural ties between his administration and the Kremlin as a “ruse.” Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, stated while at a NATO conference in Brussels, that there was “very little doubt” that the Russians had interfered with the U.S. election, in general offering a noticeably pessimistic view of an “aggressive” and “destabilizing” Russia. As such, what has become painfully clear is that the president continues to grossly miscalculate the expansionist intentions of Russia, a state whose interests almost exclusively run counter to those of the United States.

Putin possesses a well-documented and intense disdain for the West and its democratic ideals. He has facilitated the development of a governmental culture that stands in stark opposition to the very principles that Western societies hold dear. Putin’s government has demolished the free press, crippled the establishment of an independent judiciary, and unwaveringly supported dictatorial regimes accused of perpetrating war crimes and human rights abuses. His government has enacted legislation that discriminates against the LGBT community, and has even recently decriminalized certain forms of domestic violence.

Over the last several years, the Kremlin has been quite active in directing the assault on American and allied interests abroad. Russia routinely harasses America’s NATO allies and even its diplomats. U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed that Russia launched state-sponsored attacks to undermine the American electoral process. This is a regime that amid its annexation of Crimea, announced its intent to dramatically bolster the size of its Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet, a fleet poised to patrol the Mediterranean, inevitably exerting great influence in the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. Additionally, Russian airstrikes in Syria didn’t prioritize the targeting of ISIS fighters, but rather, U.S.-backed rebels.

More recently, top American military officers have stated that Russia is actively attempting to undermine NATO operations in Afghanistan. Perhaps equally concerning was the Kremlin’s forceful refutation of Trump administration’s expectation of Crimea’s return to the Ukraine. Russia has also reportedly deployed a new ballistic missile, in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. A U.S. warship operating in the Black Sea was harassed by Russian aircraft three times in a single day. Additionally, and while not entirely uncommon, a Russian spy ship was spotted 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut near an American naval base. What makes this spate of Russian aggression so interesting, is that this overt challenge almost immediately followed the cordial telephone conversation between Trump and Putin.

We must make no mistake, Putin’s goal is to return Russia to its former glory as a great power, and the inescapable reality is that this transformation can only be achieved at the expense of the United States and its allies. To that end, there’s a two-part question that everyone must ask themselves. Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, does the leadership of the Trump administration still cling to demonstrably false perceptions of Russian policy aims, and will the retention of such perceptions persist to the inevitable detriment of American and allied interests?