Trump Offers Cooperation on Ukraine, Syria, and Missile Defense

Donald Trump’s first National Security Strategy (NSS), released on December 18, is not a radical departure from past U.S. strategy documents. Its language reflects the renewed influence of the traditional Republican national security establishment on U.S. decision making and the impact of international and domestic developments. These have impeded Trump’s desire to improve U.S.-Russian relations, reach a disarmament deal with North Korea, or achieve other diplomatic breakthroughs that have eluded previous U.S. presidents. 

Still, the current strategy uses blunter language than past versions. For example, the text identifies three types of primary threats to the United States: 

·         “rogue states” seeking WMDs

·         malign transnational actors such as terrorist groups

·         “revisionist powers,” primarily Russia and China

Regarding the latter category, the NSS sees Moscow and Beijing as trying to revise the U.S.-backed international order to make it more favorable to their own interests. 

Criticism of Russia permeates the text. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed these concerns in an end-of-year op-ed, stating that Washington faces “a resurgent Russia that has invaded its neighbors…and undermined the sovereignty of Western nations by meddling in our election and others.” 

Yet, this language regarding Russia is not significantly different from what has appeared in other U.S. government documents since 2014. Though it criticizes Russian foreign and domestic policies, the strategy does not advocate further NATO membership enlargement or call for a change in the Russian political system. Though critical of Russia, the sharply negative tone regarding China is arguably more significant given the novelty of this tine in a NSS. 

In his speech presenting the new strategy, Trump affirmed that, “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” The NSS adds that “will not allow inflexible ideology to become an obstacle to peace,” even while expressing pride in Americans’ traditions of limited government, free economics, and global institution building. 

Russian policymakers are quite comfortable using the competitive, zero-sum language found in the NSS. The view expressed in the NSS that Russia and China took advantage of U.S. gullibility and engagement efforts after the Cold War to expand their military power and economic influence at Americans’ expense resembles what President Vladimir Putin said at the October 2017 Valdai conference about Moscow’s past mistakes toward the West: “Our most serious mistake in relations with the West is that we trusted you too much. And your mistake is that you took that trust as weakness and abused it.” 

Most importantly, Trump has not abandoned hopes for improved bilateral relations. In his December 18 speech presenting the strategy, Trump affirmed a desire to “build great partnerships” with Russia and other states, providing U.S. national interests are protected. Kremlin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov likewise said that Moscow applies a similar standard and is working towards “cooperation with the United States in areas…beneficial for us.” In his New Year’s greeting to Trump, Putin called “for Russia and the US to engage in constructive dialogue with a view to enhancing global strategic stability and finding the best solutions to the global challenges and threats.” 

Trump, Peskov, and Putin all applauded the recent Russian-U.S. intelligence sharing that thwarted a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg as an example of mutually beneficial collaboration. Trump described the teamwork as “a great thing and the way it’s supposed to work." In background briefings for the media on the issue and on the new strategy, U.S. officials argued that bilateral ties had reached nadir a few months ago and were now on the rebound even as “both sides really have a lot of work to do to make the relationship even better.” 

In his op-ed, Tillerson correctly noted the imperative of achieving “a peaceful resolution of the Ukraine situation” (which sustains most Western sanctions on Russia) to normalize bilateral relations. The Secretary also identified achieving peace in Syria as an example of “where mutual interests intersect.” 

Another issue where Moscow and Washington should simply agree to disagree is missile defense. Despite the administration’s commitment to “peace through strength,” the strategy makes clear that “enhanced missile defense is not intended to undermine strategic stability or disrupt longstanding strategic relationships with Russia or China.” The systems the United States is deploying are designed to launch unarmed interceptors at Iranian and North Korean missiles. 

Due to the dispute over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Russian diplomats have claimed the United States could surreptitiously place offensive missiles in these platforms. Whatever the dubious merits of this claim, it certainly does not apply to the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) System based in Alaska and California. These interceptors are the only means of directly defending the U.S. homeland from North Korea’s intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs). 

The GMD system enjoys bipartisan support within Congress and is slated to improve its ability to intercept North Korean ICBMs. Nevertheless, it is not capable, or designed, to intercept Russia’s massive missile arsenal. 

Moscow has consistently agreed that Pyongyang’s nuclear program and missile tests violate international law. Recently, Russia and the United States joined in the UN Security Council in voting to impose more sanctions against North Korea in response to these missile tests. Like Japan, South Korea, and the United States, Russia has also been enhancing its defenses against North Korean missiles by developing advanced air-and-missile interceptors in eastern Russia. 

2018 offers Moscow and Washington new opportunities for overcoming bilateral differences over terrorism, Ukraine, Syria, missile defense, North Korea, and other issues.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.