Rubin: Trump clueless on Russia

The whole world knows how much President-elect Donald Trump prides himself on deal-making. He views foreign policy entirely in terms of making deals the way he did for his business empire. He brags that his bargaining skills will corral China and Russia into doing his bidding.Yet, to the amazement of allies and probably of foes, Trump has been handing over his best bargaining chips to Vladimir Putin - gratis - even before taking office. Clearly his real estate deals have given him few clues as to how to handle authoritarian leaders, although his ego insists otherwise. This willful blindness puts America's security at risk.

Trump's cluelessness was painfully evident in an interview he gave to the London Times last week in which he continued to denigrate the European Union and NATO, while gushing: "Let's see if we can make some good deals with Russia."

What's the deal he wants to cut with Putin?

Trump proposed removing sanctions "that hurt [Russia] very badly" in return for Moscow's reducing its number of nuclear weapons. Anyone who's dealt with Russia, or with U.S. security policy, would know that combining these two totally disparate issues is ludicrous.

The United States and Europe imposed painful economic sanctions on Russia as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The sanctions are set to remain in force until Moscow reverses its ongoing aggression.

"The sanctions were imposed for Russian aggression that overturned the whole post-WWII order in which European boundaries were no longer changed by force," says Alexander Vershbow, the former deputy secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization who previously served as U.S. ambassador to both NATO and Russia.

Any nuclear weapons deal, on the other hand, would require the United States to match the Russians tit-for-tat in reducing warheads via specific arms negotiations. Putin prides himself on his nukes - which give Russia great power status despite its weak economy. The idea that he would swap them for the lifting of sanctions is senseless. "I'm really puzzled by it," says Vershbow, "especially since the Russians reject that linkage."

Even raising the idea illustrates how little Trump understands about bargaining with Moscow.

By making clear he's willing to lift sanctions without a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, Trump is essentially giving Putin a green light to reestablish a Russian sphere of interest over part of Europe by any means necessary. He's making a concession reminiscent of the post-WWII pact at Yalta that divided Europe into Western and Soviet sectors. Yet he appears ready to hand this massive concession to Putin for little or nothing.

But the president-elect seems eager to make even more dangerous and unrequited concessions to Putin - by undermining our closest allies and alliances. He's effectively been encouraging the breakup of the European Union.

He appears to view the EU mainly as a trade competitor - not as a community of nations that share Western values in a world where those values are under threat. He's even taken to insulting the vital leader of Germany, Angela Merkel.

Moreover, Trump's rhetoric gives the impression he's ready to abandon America's strongest military alliance - NATO - which he slammed once again in the Times interview. Asked by media if Moscow agreed with Trump's view that NATO was "obsolete," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin had long been making the same point.

Yet, as Vershbow notes, NATO allies have been conducting counter-terrorism missions and training local forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere for years, alongside American forces - and have been slowly raising their contributions to the alliance. If Trump sought to beef up counterterror operations, and push for more member pay-in, while actively supporting the alliance, that would be useful. But to constantly denigrate NATO plays into Putin's hands.

Indeed, one of NATO's primary missions has now become to deter further Russian aggression and subversion in Europe. "Our original mission is back with a vengeance," says Vershbow. "Never since the mid-1980s have we been so dependent on NATO to deter external aggression [by Russia]."

What does Trump think he will get in return for giving up so much? He seems convinced - as does his future national security adviser Michael Flynn - that Russia will become a crucial ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism.

But, as Russia proved time and time again in Syria, when it failed to join the anti-ISIS fight, that idea is an illusion.

"What is driving Russia is not an intention to form an alliance against terrorism," says Vershbow. Rather than fight ISIS, Putin's interest is to keep his proxy, Bashar al-Assad, in power and to establish major military bases in Syria.

Perhaps the president-elect's bromance with Putin will be tempered by his more Russia-savvy picks for secretaries of state and defense, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis. But if Trump the deal-maker continues on the same tack in the White House, abetted by Flynn, Putin need do nothing more than sit back and wait as America's new leader delivers more freebies. Call it The Artlessness of the Deal.

trubin@phillynews.com

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