President Donald Trump shared a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, their first contact with Trump in his official capacity as president. The political bromance between the two was sparked much earlier, however, and poses a grave threat to U.S. interest.
While the call shared between the two leaders is of little importance by itself — it being the political norm for a newly-elected president to make such calls — it is caught in the looming shadow of Russian interference in the 2016 election and a continuing Russian campaign against U.S. interests around the world. Furthermore, when coupled with Trump’s unsettling campaign rhetoric, it eerily serves as the ghost of foreign policy yet to come.
On the campaign trail, Trump often mused about forming a strategic partnership with Russia in order to combat radical Islam, and his former campaign manager-turned-counselor Kellyanne Conway has confirmed a lifting of Russian economic sanctions is being considered. Both policies, should they come to fruition, would cause serious harm to the United States.
Beginning with the issue of Syria, it is extraordinarily clear that Putin, having deftly outmaneuvered former President Barack Obama, is seeking to consolidate his gains in the region. Having spent quite some time bombing U.S.-backed troops and civilians instead of the “official” target (the Islamic State) Putin is evidently ready to start playing nice. To buy into this ruse would be a huge mistake.
The Kremlin is not active in the Middle East to fight terrorism, but rather to reintroduce itself onto a world stage that Putin sorely misses. Desperate to regain the influence of a world superpower, Russia has produced for itself a healthy vassal kingdom in Syria and continues to peddle arms in the region to counter American-backed forces.
It is not prepared to cede an inch of the freshly-reconquered Syria to forces not under its own control, nor will it end its ruthless campaign of depopulating and terror bombing its enemies in the region anytime soon. In short, there is little common ground in the Middle East for the former Cold War opponents to share.
Similarly, Russian obstinance in Ukraine has seen the Crimean Peninsula remain annexed and occupied for over two years now. Trump would be foolish to believe a nation that has occupied territory of one of our allies is prepared to help us — indeed, it is demonstrably hurting us and mocking our military commitments.
Nowhere is the dereliction of American commitment more possible and deadly than in Eastern Europe. Having tried his luck once, there is little doubt Putin will continue his poking and prodding, subtlety searching for ways to fracture the American-led alliance there.
Time and time again, from the Bering Straits to the Baltics, Putin has reveled in any opportunity to degrade the United States’ global influence. A dictator by nature and a ruthless man by his KGB design, Putin has garnered international infamy for his brutal crackdowns on the press and political dissidents. Does this really sound like the kind of man Americans should partner with? Does it sound like the kind of man we could partner with?
It is fittingly ironic that the man Trump could stand to learn the most from is his predecessor, a man whom he utterly detests, going so far as to claim he wasn’t born here. Yet Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s failed Russian Reset speaks volumes today; a conciliatory dictator promising to cooperate is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and shouldn’t be trusted. To dance with the bear is to make yourself its next supper.
Putin’s personal disregard for the international order, coupled with Trump’s inexperience and repeated pledges to withdraw the U.S. from around the world, stands to do irreparable harm to the United States and its people. But it is not unavoidable.
Hawks in the Senate have already voiced concerns, particularly about secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, and millions of Americans still rightfully distrust the sleeping bear. Still, a vigilant public on the watch for foreign trickery is not the best way to counter Putin — that job will fall squarely on the shoulders of President Trump.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article listed Ukraine as a member of NATO, which it is not. This has since been changed.