A Comedy of Errors: Trump, Russia, and Great Power Competition

CSPS Fellow Courtney Kayser discusses Trump’s foreign policy decisions and how these decisions impact great power competition, focusing on how Trump’s policies benefit the Russian Federation.

Since his early days in office, President Trump has repeatedly praised authoritarian leaders and leaders that have bucked democratic norms across the world – from Putin to Erdogan to Kim Jong Un. However, the Trump Presidency has coincided with a return to grand strategy and great power competition, and this is seen in the American military doctrine. The 2018 National Defense Strategy reads, “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Yet, nearly every foreign policy decision made by President Trump directly aids American long-term strategic rivals, namely Russia.

After Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017, he was congratulated for this victory by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and since then, the two leaders have held several press conferences where Trump deferred to the Russian leader. Official note takers and policy advisors to President Trump have been left out of many conversations, leaving their exact nature a mystery.

This close relationship is especially troubling given the Kremlin’s extensive campaign to interfere in the US 2016 Presidential Election. There is extensive evidence linking this interference with Russian military intelligence; however, Trump has not invested resources into investigating how this interference occurred or in how to prevent such actions in the future. Instead, Trump denied Russia’s interference, because Putin claimed the Kremlin had not interfered. Trump’s concern with the Crowdstrike server in Ukraine further obscures Russia’s role in the 2016 election interference. The fact that this interference benefited Trump adds another wrinkle to these denials. 

A whistleblower complaint has recently raised concerns about Trump withholding military aid from Ukraine in exchange for information on his domestic political opponents, former Vice President Joe Biden. If the contents of this complaint prove true, this benefits Russia in two ways. Firstly, withholding military aid directly benefits the Russian-backed separatist fighters in Eastern Ukraine. Secondly, Trump’s request influences Ukrainian investigations into corruption, bending them to his political benefit. Compromising the Ukrainian courts for personal gain threatens the post-Euromaidan development, and continued corruption serves to keep Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence and prevents further integration with the EU. 

Denial of Russian interference in the 2016 election, withholding military aid to a country fighting a Russian backed separatist movement, and interference with the Ukrainian courts are the most obvious cases of actions benefiting the Kremlin. But, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

In the Middle East, Trump’s actions also universally aid the Kremlin. First, reneging on the Iran Deal benefiting the Kremlin by pushing Iran further from the American sphere of influence and strengthening its ties with Russia. Second, removing US troops from Northern Syria benefits the Kremlin, because they gained intelligence from hastily abandoned US military bases. Even worse, the Kurds negotiated with the Assad regime and the Kremlin to defend themselves from Turkish offensives.

Trump is degrading the international norms that the US established post-World War II and helped the US maintain a position of strength in international politics. The US election system has not taken sufficient steps in the past few years to prevent interference like what was seen in 2016 – meaning that it is still susceptible to external interference. This weakness will likely be capitalized upon by the Kremlin again, and the fact that it was allowed without reprimand means other states, like China, are likely to follow Russia’s lead. Removing the US from the Iran Deal, from Syria, and the like means that decisions will be made and agreements will be reached without input from the United States. Praises for authoritarian rulers and capitulating to their desires has not benefited the United States. Rather, it has weakened American positions, compromised policy and strategic objectives, and damaged the reputation of the United States. For all Trump promised that the US would win so much that we would get tired of winning, I, for one, despair for how much the US has lost.

Courtney Kayseris a Ph.D. student in Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Philosophy, a Certificate in Russian and East European Studies, and a minor in Russian language from Seton Hall University. She is proficient in Russian and French, and has an elementary proficiency in Ukrainian. Her research focuses on nationalism, civil conflicts, and Post-Soviet politics.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons