The Slatest

Let’s Get This Straight: Trump Doesn’t Want to Sanction Russia, Is Totally Fine Risking a War With Them

US President Donald Trump (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) wave as they pose for a group photo ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit leaders gala dinner in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 10, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SPUTNIK / Mikhail KLIMENTYEV        (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin wave as they pose for a group photo ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit leaders gala dinner in the central Vietnamese city of Danang on November 10, 2017.
MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Getty Images

The White House has walked back a plan to impose new sanctions on Russia over its support for the Bashar al-Assad regime following the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had announced over the weekend that the penalties would be unveiled today. According to the Washington Post, there had been internal confusion in the White House over the plan, and after Haley spoke, Trump “conferred with his national security advisers … and told them he was upset the sanctions were being officially rolled out because he was not yet comfortable executing them.”

This fits into what’s become a well-established pattern of the president resisting his own administration’s moves to take a hard line on Russia. Just this weekend, the Post reported that the president had been furious last month about the United States’ expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-spy in England. Trump had signed off on the plan but apparently hadn’t realized the U.S. would be expelling far more than other countries did. “There were curse words,” one official said, “a lot of curse words.” Given the ongoing investigation into Russia’s role in his election, all this has raised questions about the president’s real motives.

On the other hand, sometimes it doesn’t work that way at all. On Friday, the U.S. launched airstrikes targeting the regime of Russia’s ally, Bashar al-Assad. Contra Alex Jones, it does not appear that Trump was dragged into doing this by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his other military advisers. Trump spent all last week launching a barrage of threatening tweets at Russia, over Assad’s action, and reportedly asked his advisers for military “options that would punish not only the Syrian regime but also two of its sponsors—Russia and Iran.” Mattis favored a more limited, tailored response that would avoid Russian casualties and the potential for dangerous escalation—and eventually prevailed. In other words, the president who is now reluctant to put new sanctions on Russia spent last week pushing for military actions that could very well have started a shooting war with Russia.

Trump’s reluctance to confront Russia sometimes seems to disappear at the moments when the stakes are highest. On the same phone call where he aggravated his advisers by congratulating Putin on his election victory and suggested they meet at the White House, Trump also warned the Russian leader about his recent “invincible missile” boast, saying, “If you want to have an arms race we can do that, but I’ll win.” (The official U.S. response was to shrug at Putin’s “cheesy” display as empty bluster.) Trump has displayed enthusiasm for an arms race with Russia before and signed off, with no apparent reluctance this time, on an aggressive new nuclear posture to counter moves by Russia to modernize its forces.

In other words, Trump seems more uncomfortable about sanctioning Russia than he does about going to war with Russia. Perhaps this makes sense: If the U.S. and Russia ever got into a real war, there might not be anyone left afterward to ask questions about it.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.