The Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Friday targeting seven Russian oligarchs and 17 top government officials, part of an escalating series of responses to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election as well as what one official called the “totality of the Russian government’s ongoing and increasingly brazen pattern of malign activity around the world.” The oligarchs in question include Oleg Deripaska, who had close ties to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
This latest move comes less than two weeks after the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats by the U.S.—part of a coordinated international response to the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain on March 4.
On the other hand, it also comes less than three weeks after President Trump had a phone call with Vladimir Putin during which—against the explicit instructions of his advisers—he congratulated the Russian president on his controversial election victory, is not believed to have brought up what was arguably a chemical weapons attack against a key U.S. ally, and even suggested holding a meeting between the two leaders at the White House for what would be Putin’s first visit in more than a decade.
It’s been clear for a while now that the Trump administration and Trump himself have very different approaches to Russia. In fact, Trump may be the only “pro-Russian” figure in his administration. Even as he has continued to publicly defend his overtures to Putin and has been reluctant to criticize or even acknowledge the evidence of Russian interference in 2016, his administration has taken a number of steps that are arguably more aggressive toward Moscow than its predecessors’ actions.
The sanctions imposed by Obama have not been lifted, and more have been added, for election-related issues as well as human rights violations. Russia has been publicly called out by the U.S. for helping Syria carry out chemical weapons attacks and helping North Korea evade sanctions. The administration has begun providing lethal aid to the government of Ukraine—a step the Obama administration was not willing to take and an issue that has caused some controversy in the context of the election investigation. A U.S. airstrike may even have killed dozens of Russian fighters in Syria in February—a story that’s been bizarrely forgotten.
H.R. McMaster took a parting shot at Russia’s “aggression” in his last remarks as Trump’s national security adviser, as did former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his way out the door. Trump’s new team is unlikely to be much more accommodating: John Bolton is a longtime Russia hawk.
The Russians themselves reportedly view Trump as either hemmed in by Mueller’s investigation and prevented from executing the foreign policy he’d like, or even running a sort of “good cop, bad cop” routine.
I don’t think that’s quite right. The president’s habit of choosing advisers based on their manner and presentation rather than their views, in addition to his tendency to defer to his advisers on national security matters, has created a situation where he often seems not to agree with things his own administration is doing. “Getting along with Russia” is not the only example. The president blindsided the Pentagon last week and again on Tuesday by announcing the imminent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria even as preparations were being made to keep them there for the long term and fortify their positions. As the Washington Post reported Friday, in national security meetings, Trump and his generals hold “frequently opposing ideas” about priorities in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Even more than a year into his presidency, Trump sometimes acts as if he’s on the outside lobbing criticism rather than the one directing policy. These days, the most prominent critic of Trump’s foreign policy may be Trump himself.