With harsh words for Russia, Tillerson signals another Trump team rift

The disconnect over Russia between Trump and his top national security aides – including over meddling in US elections – is bursting increasingly into the open and showing signs of hampering decisionmaking.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke to members of the media during a briefing at the White House in Washington Nov. 20.

Russia, friend or foe?

The strikingly harsh language that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson used this week to describe Russian behavior toward the United States and its allies wouldn’t seem to leave any doubt.

“Malicious” is not usually a term chosen to describe a partner.

But wait. On the other hand, after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin Nov. 11 in Vietnam, President Trump repeated his belief that Mr. Putin is telling the truth when he says Russia had no hand in interfering in last year’s US presidential election (one of the very actions that prompted Mr. Tillerson’s “malicious” comment Tuesday).

Mr. Trump again left the impression that he considers Putin someone he can work with and confide in when he touted as “great” the more-than hour-long phone call he had with the Russian leader Nov. 21, largely on the topic of Syria.

That more recent upbeat portrayal of cooperation with Putin’s Russia apparently left Trump’s Russia aides cringing, especially since it came a day after a news-making photo of Putin welcoming Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to Russia with an energetic bear hug – an embrace between rescuer and rescued.

What emerges from the Trump administration’s split Russia assessments is a schizophrenic approach that is impeding US action on top-of-the-agenda foreign-policy issues from Ukraine to Syria and the broader Middle East, US-Russia policy analysts say.

“We’re really dealing with a picture where the president has certain instincts about Russia that are not shared by his national security team,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security affairs and Russia specialist at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “The result is a bit of an impasse.”

Indeed, the inability to settle on one common approach to Russia is hampering the administration’s decisionmaking on the Syrian peace process, whether or not to impose additional sanctions on Russia, and whether to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons.

Moreover, the lack of a clear and assertive Russia policy from Washington is actually encouraging Russian boldness and determination to pursue a resurgence of Russian regional and global power, Dr. Gvosdev says.

“The Russians are very confused by all of this, they don’t understand why the president hasn’t instructed his national security staff to reflect his views,” he says. “Their sense is that they have no incentive to do certain things or to demonstrate any cooperation or goodwill,” he adds, “so they are moving ahead without the Americans and according to what they see as their interests.”

The disconnect over Russia between Trump and his top national security aides – national security adviser H. R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Tillerson – is not new, but it is bursting increasingly out into the open and showing signs of hampering decisionmaking.

The normally deadpan Tillerson surprised many with the intensity of his criticism of Russian actions in a speech Tuesday at Washington’s Wilson International Center for Scholars. He cited the “malicious tactics” Russia has used against the US and its European allies – including election interference – that he said had plunged relations to the low levels of the cold war.

Referring to Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, its politically motivated regional energy policies, and its cyberwarfare on US and other countries’ democratic elections, Tillerson said such actions “are not the behaviors of a responsible nation.”

As if to put an exclamation mark on Tillerson’s comments, the State Department later Tuesday issued a statement condemning new Russian legislation labeling foreign news outlets as “foreign agents” and essentially treating them as hostile entities. The new law “presents yet another threat to free media in Russia,” the statement said.

Indeed, what some analysts saw in Tillerson’s speech was a frustrated but also increasingly confident secretary of state who was using the public stage to lay out a perspective he knows differs from the president’s.

“What we heard in Tillerson yesterday was a secretary of state telling the president he disagrees with him on some important issues, in this case on Russia,” says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official during the Reagan administration who is now a national security analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Tillerson’s criticisms of Russia had the whiff of a confident cabinet member who knows he’s not about to be fired and so feels free to expose his differences with the president, Mr. Korb says.

“This is designed to get the president’s attention – just as he [Tillerson] did when he pressed ahead publicly on diplomacy with North Korea,” he says.

Moreover, Korb notes that Tillerson is not alone on the national security team in following a different path from the president’s. “Remember when the president had a call with [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and said the US would stop arming the YPG [Syrian Kurdish rebel forces] – and the Pentagon came right out and said, ‘No, we’re still going to do it.’ ”

Some close observers of US-Russia relations have suggested that a moment of reckoning was coming for the administration’s Russia policy in the form of a $47 million arms deal for Ukraine that now sits on Trump’s Oval Office desk. The package of lethal weaponry (beyond the non-lethal weaponry the US already offers Ukraine) reportedly has the full backing of the president’s national security team.

In addition, the administration’s special envoy on the Ukraine conflict, Kurt Volker, supports the arms package as a means of strengthening Ukraine’s position vis-a-vis Russia, which continues to occupy territory inside its western neighbor.

But Gvosdev says he is hearing that the president could make something of a non-decision decision on the arms aid: Instead of providing Ukraine the assistance, “Trump could say ‘The weaponry is available for Ukraine to buy from us,’ and then sit back and do nothing, knowing they don’t have the money to make the purchase.”

Going that route would continue what Gvosdev calls the “passive-aggressive approach” Trump has followed in much of his Russia-related decisionmaking.

The joint communiqué on Syria that Trump issued with Putin this month was viewed by many Middle East analysts as essentially confirming Mr. Assad’s Russia-enabled victory in his country’s brutal civil war and Russia’s ascension to chief arbiter in the Syrian peace process.

On the other hand, the US continues to deploy about 2,000 troops inside Syria, even after the defeat of ISIS at its headquarters in Raqqa – suggesting they are staying on in post-ISIS Syria to support the anti-Assad rebel forces that still hold territory in the north.

And in his speech Tuesday, Tillerson – even as he deemed the Trump-Putin communiqué an important “alignment” of the two powers on the Syria peace process – insisted the US will continue to demand a diplomatic resolution that will “leave no role for Assad or his family in Syria’s government.”

What all this suggests is that the Trump administration’s 11-month-old pattern of mixed messaging on Russia-related issues appears unlikely to dissipate soon.

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