President Donald Trump said Friday he’s “been Russia’s worst nightmare” and he often argues he’s tougher than past presidents toward Moscow when rejecting criticism of his oddly deferential approach to Vladimir Putin.
But the truth is that many modern presidents have adopted a far more adversarial approach than Trump towards the Kremlin, which is accused by US intelligence services of meddling in the 2016 US election in an operation that came to favor Trump over noted Russia hawk Hillary Clinton.
While there are hardliners on Russia inside his administration, Trump has often tried to temper their approach, leading critics to question whether there is something to claims that Russia has compromising information on the US leader made in the Steele dossier.
And often, Trump has adopted positions that appear to play into the foreign policy of President Putin’s government. His feuding with G7 leaders, for instance, weakens the Western alliance, a core goal of Russian policy and his frequent criticisms of NATO have the same effect.
On Friday, Trump spoke up for another Russian goal, the restoration of Moscow’s membership in the industrialized nations club after it was kicked out of the then-G8 in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea.
“I love our country. I have been Russia’s worst nightmare. If Hillary got in – I think Putin is probably going, ‘man, I wish Hillary won’ because you see what I do,” Trump told reporters before heading off the G7 meeting in Quebec.
“But, with that being said, Russia should be in this meeting,” he said. “Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting?”
“They should let Russia come back in,” he added later.
‘No President tougher on Russia’
When asked to explain Trump’s frequent praise for Putin, the White House often says that no President has been more aggressive on Russia policy than Trump – though his rhetoric is often softer than the actions of his own administration.
“He has been tougher on Russia in the first year than Obama was in eight years combined,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in February.
Trump’s administration has imposed several sets of sanctions on Russia, allowed the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine and kicked out 60 Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. The administration also launched cruise missile attacks against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a key Putin ally – a step that Barack Obama failed to take.
But Trump has repeatedly rejected the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Moscow intervened in the 2016 election in an effort to help him win and insists that it is smart diplomacy to ease US relations with Russia, which are at their most tense since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And his moves against Moscow pale against those of many of his predecessors.
During the Cold War, American presidents lashed their Soviet counterparts rhetorically, ordered massive military buildups, sponsored covert action campaigns and proxy wars and pursued policies that several times brought the world to the edge of nuclear armageddon.
For 40 years, the organizing principle of US foreign policy was being tough on Russia in a global battle against its Communist ideology.
Trump’s fixation on toughness is not necessarily the best way to judge US-Russia policy anyway. Geopolitical factors and the ebb and flow of tensions, even during the Cold War, meant there were some periods when US presidents did try to forge dialogue with the Kremlin. Trump is not the first president to be accused of not being tough enough on the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation by anti-Russia hawks in Washington.
But history has also shown that hopes of better relations usually get dashed, owing to global politics, the tides of Russian history, and jarring philosophical differences between Washington and Moscow.
Still, even when his national security team has been pursuing traditionally hawkish policies towards Moscow at a time of plunging relations, they’ve been overshadowed by President Trump’s baffling praise for Putin.
And no previous American president has expressed such admiration for the prevailing political system in Moscow, as Trump has in his public appreciation of the strong-arm characteristics of Putinism.
Here’s how Trump’s “tough” approach to Russia stacks up against his 12 post-war predecessors.
Harry S. Truman
After World War II, Truman’s administration, prompted by a famous “long telegram” from a top American diplomat in Moscow George Kennan, concluded that the Soviet Union after World War II was dedicated to threatening the western pillars of capitalism and democracy.
In a speech to Congress, the President laid out the Truman Doctrine, an attempt to halt the spread of communism in the Mediterranean region, arguing that “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
That moment came to be seen as the declaration of the Cold War, and was followed up the Marshall Plan, an effort to rebuild devastated Europe to blunt the spread of Soviet-style communism. Truman also signed a national security directive managing a massive buildup of US and conventional arms.
In 1950, Truman declared in San Francisco: “If the Soviet Union really wants peace, it can prove it by lifting the Iron Curtain.”
The death of Joseph Stalin at the start of Eisenhower’s presidency offered a window to improve relations with Moscow. But the Soviet crackdown in Hungary in 1956 and the crash of an American U2 spy plane over Russia in 1960 finally snuffed out attempts to ease tensions failed when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev stormed out of a summit with Eisenhower in Paris. The President returned home with the warning, “It was a mystery and remains a mystery as to why at this particular moment, the Soviets chose so to distort and overplay the U2 incident that they obviously wanted no talks of any kind.”
John F. Kennedy
When the Soviet Union started to build missile installations in Cuba, Kennedy was presented with a crisis that almost boiled over into nuclear war.
“It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union,” Kennedy said, in his own version of being tough on Russia.
Over 13 days of tension in October 1962, Kennedy wrestled with how to show the Soviets the move was unacceptable while at the same time offering Khrushchev a way out as he mulled a US naval blockade or strikes on Cuba.
Eventually, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, partly in return for a secret agreement by Kennedy to take US missiles out of Turkey and one of the most dangerous moments of the Cold War was defused.
Johnson’s early presidency was devoted to domestic goals before his administration became consumed by the Vietnam War. Yet Johnson’s goals for his disastrous escalation of that conflict was seen through a Cold War prism as it was motivated by the desire to check the spread of communism across Asia.
Nixon came to office with a reputation as a scourge of communism. His version of getting tough on the Kremlin was to engage a rival power – China – in a policy of “triangulation” that prompted Moscow to seek better relations with Washington to avoid being left behind. Nixon developed the policy of detente – designed to ease tensions with the Soviet Union that produced several major arms control agreements.
During his short presidency, Ford signed the Helsinki accords with Moscow that cemented the post-World War II territorial status quo in Europe. Though the accords are not a treaty, Ford managed to get the Soviet Union to reluctantly concede to language about the need to respect human rights.
Nowadays, Carter is often portrayed as a weak president. But, his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was deeply suspicious of the Soviet Union and Carter developed a hawkish policy towards Moscow. He initiated a massive five-year defense buildup and cut grain sales to the Soviet Union following its invasion of Afghanistan, all while leading a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
“It is a deliberate effort by a powerful, atheistic government to subjugate an independent Islamic people,” Carter said of the invasion. “A Soviet-occupied Afghanistan threatens both Iran and Pakistan and is a stepping stone to possible control over much of the world’s oil supplies”
No president was as scathing about the Soviet Union as Reagan, who like Nixon had a decades-long record of opposition to communism before winning the White House. He branded the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” ordered a massive US military buildup, stationed nuclear missiles on European soil and envisaged a “Star Wars” missile defense shield to de-fang the Soviet nuclear arsenal.
In one of the most dangerous moments in the Cold War, in 1983, US-Moscow tensions nearly led to the two rivals blundering into nuclear war. But despite his toughness, Reagan also was ready to take a risk on dialogue, recognizing in new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a partner – even though many of his hawkish staff members disagreed with him. Still, Reagan never lost his tough edge even after meeting Gorbachev to negotiate arms reductions. In 1987, he traveled to the Brandenburg Gate in divided Berlin.
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan declared in his most famous speech.
George H.W. Bush
The fall of the wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Bush was the first president to adopt a new role with Moscow. The requirement was not for toughness, but for forbearance and encouragement in the hope that a new democratic system could take root.
Some Republican hawks accused Bush of not being tough enough: when the Soviet Union fell he refused to celebrate the West’s historic triumph, worrying that gloating could embolden hardliners in Russia and reverse the tide of change. In retrospect, Bush’s piloting of the Cold War to a soft landing is one of his greatest legacy achievements and shows that at times toughness from Washington is not the most effective policy.
Clinton’s historic task in US-Russia relations was to try to cement a fragile market system in Russia and he backed the loan of billions of dollars in International Monetary (IMF) funds to the government of Russian President Boris Yeltsin while backing programs to safeguard the Soviet Empire’s scattered nuclear arsenal. Still, Clinton’s policy of NATO enlargement, bringing in former Warsaw Pact states to the West was, in retrospect, a tough move. It’s seen within Russia as the beginning of a period of humiliations engineered by the United States and is a partial cause of current tensions.
George W. Bush
Bush was never able to live down the moment when he said he had looked into new Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s eyes and was able to “get a sense of his soul.” But his efforts to ease tensions with Moscow foundered at a time when Russia was becoming increasingly resentful of Washington. And with the White House consumed with multiple foreign policy challenges elsewhere in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the Iraq War, Bush was accused of not being tough enough on Putin after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. He did, however, order US transport planes to fly home Georgian troops from Iraq so they could head into battle.
Trump has frequently lambasted his immediate predecessor for being soft on Russia. Like many other Presidents, Obama reasoned that hostility with Russia made little sense and ordered a “reset” of relations. The policy was premised on the rise of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, though Putin was merely taking a time out from the presidency and returned in 2012 whereupon he immediately restored hostilities with Washington.
Obama’s biggest failing in Russia policy may be that he didn’t fully recognize the re-emerging potential threat from Moscow. He dismissed Russia as a “regional power” and mocked his 2012 election opponent Mitt Romney for being trapped in a Cold War mindset. However, Obama orchestrated the expulsion of Russia from the G8 and imposed sanctions. He also had a cold relationship with Putin that contrasts with Trump’s effusive praise of the Russian leader.
At the end of his presidency, Obama confronted Putin personally over election meddling, closed two Russian diplomatic compounds in the US and imposed more sanctions.