Michael KreponAll Roads Lead to Putin

Quote of the week:

“The best defense against usurpatory government is an assertive citizenry.”
–William F. Buckley, Jr.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s memorable retort to Donald Trump’s October 16th meltdown in the White House — “All roads with you lead to Putin” — ranks up there with Trump’s reference to American “carnage” in his inaugural address. Both will figure prominently in retrospective assessments of this strange time.

Trump is now unfiltered. The guardrails are gone. The advisers whose company he now keeps are less able or willing to save him from himself. For particulars, look no further than the puerile and embarrassing letter Trump sent to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan after apparently giving him the green light to crush the Syrian Kurds.

If Senator Mitt Romney’s speculation is correct – that Erdogan told Trump that he was crossing the Syrian border and that it would be wise for U.S. troops to get out of his way – then the United States is in serious trouble. If Turkey, a NATO ally, can dictate terms, it’s open season.

Why does Putin benefit time and again from Trump’s decisions? Why do so many roads lead to Putin? That Putin sought Trump’s election and interfered to try to produce this result is incontestable. Are there new deals, tacit or explicit?  We don’t know because their relationship is opaque. All we know for sure is that it is toxic to U.S. democracy and national security interests.

There are multiple reasons why so many roads lead to Putin. Putin benefits when Trump belittles and weakens U.S. alliances. Is this a direct favor to Putin, an indirect benefit that comes from Trump’s natural inclinations, or both? Your guess is as good as mine.

Similarly, Putin benefits from Trump’s withdrawal from arms control treaties and other agreements, but they are several plausible explanations for these tear downs. Trump finds it satisfying to tear down Barack Obama’s achievements. This might be reason enough for him, and not because he wants to help Putin out. Trump has no sense of the dynamics of international security, so when he’s told that Russia is violating an agreement, that might suffice; he doesn’t understand that an agreement less than fully complied with could still serve U.S. national security interests more than Russia’s.

Those who dislike treaties on ideological grounds have never had a more pliable instrument to do their bidding. The latest case in point is the Open Skies Treaty, which an unknowing Trump reportedly appears willing to tear down, even though it strengthens U.S. ties to Ukraine, the Baltic States, and all of Central and Eastern Europe. The Treaty’s ride- and data-sharing provisions, purposefully executed, would advance bilateral relations with every state concerned about having Vladimir Putin as a neighbor.

The best example of the Open Skies Treaty’s value came in December 2018 after Russia attacked Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea. The United States then carried out an overflight of eastern Ukraine with British, German, French, Canadian, Romanian and Ukrainian observers on board. The purpose of the overflight, according to a Pentagon release, was “to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations.‎”

The biggest loser from the death of the Open Skies Treaty, besides the United States, would be Ukraine. In this instance, Ukraine’s injury would be due to John Bolton and Tim Morrison rather than Rudy Giuliani and his “associates.” These injuries are compounded, regardless of motive. If the State and Defense departments and the National Security Council staff were in good hands, they would all strongly advise Trump against tearing up the Open Skies Treaty, as there is no U.S.national security benefit in doing so.

It’s not too late to prevent adding further injury to Ukraine and to utilize the Open Skies Treaty to full advantage. 

Note to readers: A longer version of this opinion piece appeared in Forbes.com.

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