Inside Trump’s Long Game on Russia

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Scrutiny over President Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia heightened this week as former FBI Director Robert Mueller was selected as special counsel to lead the inquiry into Russian influence on last year’s presidential election.

It comes as the FBI and Congress continue their separate investigations into Russia’s meddling in the U.S. Presidential election and as the Trump Administration faces global challenges – many of which are tied to Moscow. The Cipher Brief’s Leone Lakhani asked General Jack Keane, the former Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Army – who turned down a request to serve as Trump’s Secretary of Defense – about the threat Russia poses to the U.S. and what the Trump Administration’s policy has been so far towards Moscow.

The Cipher Brief: How serious of a threat to our national security is Russia, given the accusations of meddling in our Presidential election and the ongoing conflict in Syria?

General Jack Keane: Russia represents a very serious adversarial threat to the United States. They want to change the world order as we have known it since the end of WWII. As such, they have been trampling on U.S. national interests and those of our allies for many years. Russian President Vladimir Putin really wants Russia to be back on the world stage as a global power and with the respect and prestige that accompanies it. Putin caters very heavily to his domestic audience because he has seen the power of the people in the streets – at times successfully –threatening autocratic regimes. He experienced some of that himself after the 2011 elections.

He portrays the United States to his people as an aggressor nation that is operating contrary to Russia’s national interests. He blames the United States for the turmoil in the Middle East and South Asia, by conducting multiple invasions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, while giving rise to ISIS.

Putin wants to replace the U.S. in the Middle East as the most influential out-of-region country. As such, he conducted a military intervention into Syria, propping up a war criminal regime that has perpetuated the systematic killing of civilians. Russia is now conducting the majority of the daily bombings of civilian communities.

Putin now has arms deals with most Sunni Arab countries in the Middle East – which usually bought U.S. or European weapons. He’s trying to also build and operate nuclear power plants throughout the Middle East; he’s about to cut a deal with the Egyptians to build four.

It clearly points to Putin’s ambitious global strategy. Certainly, when it comes to Eastern Europe and the countries that have historically been associated with the Soviet Union, he’s been equally aggressive – as we’ve seen with his partial occupation of Georgia and Ukraine and his annexation of Crimea. He continues to intimidate the Baltic states with the power of television and radio threatening those states, repeated military flyovers , and in the last several years conducting some 17 military training exercises – most of which involved a war with NATO over the Baltic States.

Putin clearly sees the major opponent to his ambitions as the United States and the transatlantic alliance, NATO, that we’ve maintained so successfully since the end of WWII.

TCB: What is the Trump Administration’s policy toward Russia? Despite accusations against Russia regarding interference in the election, as well as tough words from high-level cabinet members such as U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the President himself has not echoed those sentiments. Do you think this is causing an incoherence in policy?

JK: No, I think U.S. policy as it pertains to Russia has actually changed. President Barack Obama’s policy began with the “reset” strategy with Russia which meant to improve relationships, and therefore, his policy throughout his eight-year tenure was largely one of engagement. The Trump policy, while we’re only 100 days in to the new administration, has shifted from simply engagement and diplomacy to a willingness to confront. I think that is a major policy shift and one that is warranted.

TCB: We haven’t seen that from the President though; we’ve seen it from Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson.

JK: You can’t separate the President from his Secretary of State, Ambassador to the UN or Secretary of Defense. All of them have called out Russia in the last 100 days, to include the President. One, for backing a war criminal in Syria, Assad. Two, for not abiding by the Minsk Accord in Ukraine, which demands Russia pull out separatist forces with Russian military capability from Ukraine. Indeed, Secretary Tillerson said that until such time as Russia abides by the Minsk Accord, there is no chance that the relationship between the United States and Russia will improve. And finally, they have been called out for meddling in the U.S. election.

The President is certainly supporting all of that, and he’s also talked about Russia’s behavior not being acceptable. I don’t think we should try to parse a separation between the President and those officials who are executing his foreign policy and national security objectives.

TCB: The intelligence community determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 election – but neither the Trump nor Obama Administrations put forward a robust response to the election hack. What are the long-term repercussions of that?

JK: First, Obama sanctioned Russia for election meddling and Trump has supported it. These intelligence agencies now work for this President. There are multiple investigations by the FBI and the Congress concerning the degree of interference. I would imagine that as information is confirmed by the FBI investigation, I think the administration may impose further sanctions on Russia.

The ability to succeed at hacking was largely based on the exposure that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) provided to the Russian hackers after repeated warnings by the FBI who, I sense, had picked up activity by these hackers, or at least their intent to hack. The Republican National Committee, as I understand it, took some precautionary measures and put in more defensive firewalls and the DNC did not. That certainly was an unfortunate decision.

Also, I think we have to be somewhat realistic about what happens in the world of geopolitics and the world of covert operations. First of all, Russia has a pattern of doing this in Eastern European elections and may have had some influence in Brexit – or at least tried. Many nations attempt to influence elections or politics in adversarial countries because it is in their national interest to do so, to include the United States.

TCB: On a broader level, Trump has taken an aggressive stance both toward Syria and North Korea. Do you think this shows that the President trusts his intelligence services?

JK: The intelligence services are not policy formulators, but provide fact-based analysis to help policymakers make decisions.

I don’t know if this administration has any reservations about the intelligence services as it pertains to North Korea and Syria – but I doubt it. If you’re referring to some of the issues it had in the past, I think that had more to do with information being leaked and concerns that intel agencies were trying to acquire information on the Trump transition team, which is also under investigation.

Now that Trump’s political appointees are in place, some of those concerns have probably lessened to a large degree.

The Director of the CIA briefs the President on a regular basis. That has not been the case in the past – since the Director of National Intelligence was established – but Director Mike Pompeo, who I spoke to about it, believes he has a great relationship with the President, and the President has confidence in him and his organization.

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