Trump is potentially the friendliest US President Russia is likely to find in a long time
But with Michael Flynn gone, the Kremlin may wonder if it's really worth waiting for Trump
Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s International Diplomatic Editor. The opinions expressed in this article are his.
Of all the diplomatic clouds hanging over President Donald Trump’s White House, the darkest and most malevolent is Russia. Yet since he came to office, the gaping hole in Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements has been on exactly this subject.
Michael Flynn’s abrupt resignation will leave many asking further questions about Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin.
While there has been almost radio silence on Russia,Trump has had time to reverse course on China, now accepting its “One China” policy. On Iran, Trump took little time putting the theocracy “on notice” for unspecified retaliation, should it threaten the interests of the US or its allies.
But his plans for Russia remain an enigma wrapped in layers of potential personal and business controversy. The the omission is all the more glaring as Trump has previously implied that Putin is central to his much-vaunted aim to destroy ISIS and make Americans safe.
Trump’s vacillation between professed admiration for Putin, to claims that he doesn’t know the man, to saying that “If Putin likes Trump … that’s called an asset,” leaves not just Americans wondering what he plans for the future of the US-Russia relationship, but the Kremlin also.
In recent days, sources in Moscow have complained of disarray at the US State Department, claiming that they don’t know who is in charge of what and whom they should speak to about key issues.
Now, a key member of the Trump administration resigns because of a scandal that centers on the revelation that he discussed US sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador. No wonder Moscow is confused. Russia has denied that Flynn and the ambassador discussed sanctions, despite Flynn’s resignation.
Some of these concerns might have begun to be laid to rest this week, as Trump’s “A Team” of Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis fly to Europe for a series of key meetings.
But with Flynn’s departure hanging in the air, the President may feel under-represented on any future talks with Russia.
Russia currently sits at the center of a number of the crises facing the world. In Syria, it outmaneuvered Obama to become the central player in brokering any kind of peace deal. In Europe, the Russian intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 triggered a chain of events that has reached near boiling point, with more and more NATO troops deploying to Eastern Europe. All of this is happening at a time when many are questioning the future of NATO – something that plays to Putin’s desires: witness his eagerness to draw NATO and US ally Turkey to his side in the Syria conflict.
Trump is potentially the friendliest US President Russia is likely to find in a long time. But shorn of a national security adviser who once sat next to Putin at dinner and was paid to appear on pro-Kremlin media, the Kremlin may wonder if it’s really worth waiting for Trump. Only weeks ago when Obama expelled several dozen Russian diplomats, the Kremlin held its nerve and didn’t resort to the normal diplomatic tit-for-tat expulsions.
Pence, Tillerson and Mattis leave behind them a chaotic, Tim Burton-esque Camelot: a king who tried to run before he could walk and graceless courtiers who make a mockery of themselves, their roles and the monarch. Add to those handicaps an unpopular press secretary who says things that are proven to be untrue; a dissembling adviser with no facts and little grip on the truth; a senior adviser utterly lacking in humility whose propensity for alternate facts defies logic; and last but by no means least, Flynn, whose tenure as national security adviser is the shortest on record and whose own alternate facts cost him his job.
Pence, Tillerson and Mattis must now explain the madness of Trump’s first month to reassure some of the US’s most important allies that the country is not totally out of control.
If they fail to do that over the next few days with meetings in Bonn, Brussels and Munich, they risk a sterile relationship with some of America’s oldest allies.
Europe, without doubt, is experiencing its own annus horribilis, Brexit, insurgent populists in Trump’s mold and, to cap it all, a financial crisis in the south.
But despite all of these pressing issues, somewhere near top of the agenda will be how best to tame the Russian Bear: are Europe and the US ready to jump in the cage along side it, or should they leave the bear in the cage and keep it at a safe distance.
The Russians are the most in need of all those waiting to see Trump’s Three Horsemen. Putin wants to be respected as a global power player. He wants suzerainty in Syria, forgiveness for invading Ukraine, and increasingly – along with his ally Iran – to set the agenda in the Arab world.
Where Trump is on any of this is the biggest conundrum; where he is without Flynn, who appears at the very least to have been a primary channel to Russia, is even more of a mystery.
The Kremlin says that the pair still plan to meet, but to discuss what is unclear. Can Trump really make an ally of Putin over killing off of ISIS, and simultaneously reduce Russia’s strategic weapons arsenals, as has been suggested?
It is possible that Russia will now see what the rest of the world appears to be slowly waking up to now: that wiser hands in the form of Tillerson and Mattis are taking up their administration posts and slowly shifting Trump away from his Russian embrace.
Mattis and Tillerson have both been critical of Russia. Trump’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has raised the bar on Europe’s sanctions on Russia, saying it must not only comply with the Minsk agreement, but get out of Crimea if it wants the US to lift sanctions too.
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It’s little wonder, then, that the Kremlin wants clarity and no surprise that they’ll be keener than ever for a face-to-face chat with the President. How else will they remind the President of their importance in solving many of the problems facing him?
But here’s the rub: as European leaders will likely appeal to the US delegation to isolate Russia for the sake of European stability, the fact remains that Russia has successfully placed itself at the center of many of the greatest problems facing the planet.
Time is running out and Trump needs to make a decision about that bear and his cage.