Russia is raising questions about Trump’s strategy

Editor’s Note: Michael Weiss is CNN’s national security analyst and the author of The Putin Code.

America’s press report on the possible U.S. response to Russia’s latest seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels has me scratching my head.

A Russia that invaded Crimea, annexed the peninsula in 2014, and keeps accusing Ukraine of Russian-backed insurgency in its eastern region, should be considered another problem in the rump European Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin is an inconvenient international pest that can only be dealt with in San Francisco International Airport.

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But here we are: The potential for a trade war between the U.S. and Russia comes just as Trump is in Asia seeking a post-trade America-first approach to the world. An intractable problem may indeed cloud his thinking and political advantage in the near term, however tempting it may be.

For years, the Obama administration alleged that Russia was holding American citizens and even diplomats hostage. The initial administration response was a stern demarche, the precursor to and a proposal for sanctions, but the diplomats languished on the sidelines. After Russian provocations intensified and escalated, the U.S. finally resorted to the harsh rhetoric of sanctions in the spring of 2016.

This strategy wasn’t particularly effective because imposing sanctions wasn’t as effective as it used to be. Putin has countered by simply buying up foreign assets, primarily dollar-denominated assets in Kazakhstan and other countries, and reversing the sanctions’ effects to the detriment of Western economies. For his part, Putin’s advisers tell him that with the U.S. election meddling scandal and its metastasizing probes, Russia should aim to get out from under the burden of U.S. sanctions, while maximizing their benefits — if any.

Trump’s tough talk and sanctions on Russia have already contributed to a more stable relationship with Putin. Many Trump critics, including many in the U.S. press, find that odd. To most of them, Trump’s pro-Russia posture is alarming: he made inappropriate proclamations about Ukraine and other relations that may, or may not, have helped boost Putin, as a tactic to distract from investigations of Russia.

But these critics’ grievances have a hard time translating into clarity for the average American. Their concerns about Russian de-escalation aren’t what most Russians who paid attention to the struggle over Crimea are worrying about. They are more fearful about falling oil prices, the potential for their economy to start sliding and President Donald Trump’s hot-and-cold approach to Putin. Russian leaders are also curious about the likely U.S. response. The economic model for America under Putin, they feel, is backed by a powerful populist leader.

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He is Russia, Putin, and his show. What makes Trump different? Trump’s sense of drama and his comfort with rallying crowds is familiar to Russian officials. Politicians in Moscow constantly worry about what Trump’s unpredictability and extraordinary personalities mean for Russia’s future.

But Trump’s approach is more feckless than Putin’s, they say. He’s surrounded by hawks and is reluctant to alienate key constituencies.

What would make Trump different is not his political approach but his global politics, the analysts add. During the 2016 election campaign, Trump often touted a more benign foreign policy — his “America First” rhetoric was both entertaining and promising. Trump advisers and allies knew the president was sympathetic to Moscow, but they were shocked by the degree of his alignment. After the election, they assumed that Trump’s strategy would change as he set up for his stints in the Oval Office. As Trump pushed for a plan for a Syrian alliance with Russia, Europe and America’s Arab partners, and for many months talked about defeating ISIS and striking Iranian targets in Syria, he was adopting a Russia-friendly policy.

It’s unclear if that has changed. Nevertheless, Trump’s weakness on Russia could have detrimental effects on the U.S. and the European economies. He has also raised questions about the reliability of the United States in the coming Middle East conflict and its ability to lead and secure areas of the world that still remain unsettled.

Just consider the way many economic advisers and friends around the world view Trump’s policy on trade with China and with Europe. Any significant U.S. shifts or strategic realignments could become bad news for the United States, including the expansion and penetration of EU and other markets

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