Trump’s Russia-friendly rhetoric might not be so Russia-friendly after all
Ask Donald Trump about any problem on the face of the earth and he’ll tell you he could fix it without too much bother. That’s just Trump and this is the lens through which we should view his comments on Russia and Vladimir Putin.
There’s a thirst in some circles for some less incendiary rhetoric on Russia from the 2016 field of candidates for president and Trump seems to have quenched it.
He made headlines last month when he announced during a trip to Scotland that he believed he’d “get along very nicely” with Putin. The so-called pro-Russia rhetoric continued when he told CNN during the same trip that Crimea is more “Europe’s problem” than America’s problem. Before that, in June, he broke the shocking news to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly that Russians are people you can get along with. “You can make deals with those people,” he said.
On the surface of it, in the current frosty environment, this kind of rhetoric seems revolutionary. It seems like Trump might genuinely be the guy to restore US-Russia relations to a more even keel.
The reaction to his comments has been one of two things: horror or unbounded optimism. From those with extremely negative views on Russia’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, the reaction has been horror; how could anyone possibly get along with a madman like Putin, is the general (and illogical) theme. A Vox article, for example, called Trump’s comments about restoring relations “insane.” On the other hand, some with more neutral or positive views on Moscow’s actions have hailed him as some sort of saint. Both reactions to Trump’s rhetoric are misguided.
Indeed, it should be seen as a welcome and positive thing if a candidate for the US presidency wants to restore good relations with Moscow rather than exacerbate tensions, but those regarding Trump as the savior of the day might be seizing on a few off-the-cuff comments too soon. And if you look a little more deeply at the context of Trump’s comments, you’ll see why. While Trump today might be asking why the US is “leading the charge” in Ukraine, it was just a year ago that he was going on television to chide Obama for not doing enough to stand up to Putin, even arguing for economic sanctions to be put in place.
“We should definitely be strong, we should definitely do sanctions and we have to show some strength,” he said.
Asked in August whether he’d scrap sanctions, Trump said it “depends” because Russia would have to “behave.” It’s unclear what a ‘behaving’ Russia would look like to Trump, but someone should probably ask him. Moscow might have some different ideas.
NATO and Snowden
On NATO membership for Ukraine, Trump says he “wouldn’t care” that much whether they were in or out. “If [Ukraine] goes in, great. If it doesn’t go in, great,” he told NBC.
Trump’s blasé attitude to the NATO question can be looked at in two ways: the first is that since he doesn’t care, he wouldn’t push it; the other is that since he doesn’t care, he could be easily swayed.
Either way, not having a position on NATO membership for Ukraine betrays Trump’s lack of understanding of the elements and roots of the crisis in that country, including Russia’s perspective and the West’s involvement. Ukraine’s membership of NATO is a red line for Moscow, and the fact that he thinks this could be at all feasible or negotiable with the Kremlin speaks volumes about how little he understands Moscow’s stance. One of the criticisms of Washington’s policy on Ukraine has been that it is too black and white and lacks historical context. Trump certainly would not bring any of that to the table.
In the midst of his recent flurry of comments on Russia, Trump has also thrown in lines like this: “Ukraine is a problem, and we should help them,” but no one has asked him precisely what that help looks like. Money? Weapons? Kind words of support?
To recap: Russia would have to “behave” for sanctions to be lifted, Ukrainian membership of NATO is not off the table and the US should still “help” Ukraine. Those are all vague statements, but they don’t sound altogether unlike Washington’s current position.
On the question of Edward Snowden, Trump seems to think he’d have an even easier time at the negotiating table. He would simply click his fingers and Putin would send the NSA leaker packing. Speaking to CNN’s Anderson Cooper in July about sending Snowden back to the US, Trump said: “If I’m president, Putin says hey, boom, you’re gone! I guarantee you that.”
That’s a fairly lofty guarantee and one that Trump might want to run by future pal Putin in advance.
All for show?
It’s important to remember that Trump isn’t saying seemingly nice things about Russia to be nice. He’s saying them because at the end of the day, his misguided belief is that the US needs to take a harder line with Russia, not a softer one. When you look back over his history of comments on Obama and Putin, that’s what really gets him. He has been sickened by what he feels is Obama’s “weak” foreign policy. He’s simply taking a different approach to that of his competitors.
Consider that when he told his audience last month that he’d “get along very nicely” with Putin, he added: “...and I mean, where we have the strength.”
Where “we” have the strength, not Putin.
The Kremlin has expressed that it is sick of what it regards as a bullying America that does not respect its interests. Trump’s comments, in their full context, indicate that he’s not necessarily going to deliver something they will much enjoy. To quote his interview in Scotland again, he said: "[Putin] has no respect for President Obama. He will respect me, that I can tell you.”
After all this tough-talk, one can imagine that an absolute no-no for Trump would be to look 'weak' in negotiations with Putin, and that’s not necessarily a recipe for success in Ukraine.
The same butting-heads dynamic can be imagined for any of the candidates running for president, but at the end of the day, a solution to the crisis in Ukraine doesn’t rest on who can get along best with Putin in their imagination. A solution will come from the full acknowledgement in Washington that a completely lopsided, West-is-best view of this conflict simply won’t do. Until that happens, Trump’s talk of deals and friendly relationships are for show.
It’s slim pickings for Russia when it comes to the 2016 field. But not having very many appetizing options, doesn’t necessarily mean Trump is the right one. The only new variable here is that Donald Trump thinks there's nothing he can't fix and no one whose arm he can’t twist. His so-called “pro-Russia” rhetoric stems from that egotistical belief. Remember, this is the man who has said if he were elected, he’d “scare” the Pope into supporting capitalism by telling him “ISIS wants to get you.”
Trump is a man who is used to getting his own way, through wheeling and dealing and always being one of the richest guys in the room. But geopolitics doesn’t work like a reality TV show and if he doesn’t get what he wants from Putin, things could turn even more sour fairly quickly.
But hey, presidential campaigns are won on empty promises. Then again, maybe if by some miraculous turn of events we see a President Trump, he might prove himself to be the miracle worker he thinks he is.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.