Following Monday’s summit in Helsinki, many American pundits and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized President Trump for what they perceived as his failure to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) slammed Trump’s “shameful” performance, and former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan went so far as to call Putin the “master puppeteer” of the Oval Office.
Some may expect me to lend my voice to this chorus of condemnation. After all, I have personally experienced the devastating consequences of Putin’s expansionism. In 2008, when I was the president of Georgia, Russia shocked the world by invading my country. To this day, one-fifth of Georgia’s territory remains under illegal Russian occupation, and Georgia lacks a clear roadmap to NATO membership.
The Helsinki summit did not change my view of the Russian president. As I have reiterated many times, Putin is pure evil. There is no doubt in my mind that U.S. intelligence agencies arrived at the correct conclusion: Russia did meddle in the U.S. 2016 election, and Putin himself directed the operation. Again, I speak from personal experience on this topic: In 2012, Russian intelligence services interfered in the Georgian parliamentary elections, boosting the Kremlin’s preferred candidate through disinformation operations.
Thus, my opinion of President Trump’s policy vis-à-vis Russia is perhaps more positive than one might assume from my background. My reasoning is two-fold: After a lifetime of firsthand experience with Russian aggression, I must evaluate Trump’s actions against the proper historical context. In doing so, I have found that Trump’s actions speak for themselves.
The Outrage Seems Selective
On the first point, I consider it unfair that Trump’s performance in Helsinki has garnered harsher criticism than other incidents in recent memory. In 2012, for example, a hot microphone at a global nuclear security summit picked up then-President Barack Obama assuring Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” to negotiate with Putin after the presidential election.
During a debate with GOP opponent Mitt Romney the same year, Obama casually dismissed the Russian threat, quipping: “The 1980s called; they want their foreign policy back.” Although Trump could certainly have been more forceful by condemning Putin’s crimes, his statements at the Helsinki press conference were nowhere near as concerning as his predecessor’s remarks about Russia.
This brings me to my second point: Trump’s actions toward Russia speak louder than words—and so did his predecessor’s. Indeed, the Obama administration’s foreign policy undermined America’s credibility in my region, which Putin considers Russia’s “backyard.” There are many opinions about Trump’s rhetoric on Crimea, but it is a fact that the Russian land grab in Ukraine happened on Obama’s watch.
How, exactly, did this happen? During and after Ukraine’s revolution of 2014, which ousted a Kremlin-backed dictator, on a daily basis the United States cautioned Ukraine not to escalate in response to Russian aggression. Thus, Putin saw an opportunity to annex Crimea without risking a direct confrontation with the West—and he seized it. Putin is a bully, but not a fool.
What a Difference Two Years Makes
Rather than changing his course after Moscow redrew the borders of Europe by force, Obama doubled down. Despite bipartisan consensus in favor of selling lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, and vocal support from his own administration officials (including Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton), Obama repeatedly refused to authorize the sales.
Instead of anti-tank weapons, the Ukrainians defending their territory from Russian invasion received hot blankets and canned goods from the Obama administration. At the same time, Obama asserted that the Ukraine conflict had “no military solution.” With these words—and more importantly, these actions—he was perceived by some on the Russian side as accepting the Kremlin’s sphere of influence in Ukraine.
Despite my warnings, the Obama administration also essentially turned a blind eye to Russian meddling in Georgia’s 2012 elections. The result was devastating not only for Georgia, but for American interests: A Kremlin-backed oligarch (who has substantial interests in Russian energy firm Gazprom) ascended to power in a strategic U.S. ally. Moreover, Russia’s meddling in Georgia’s elections functioned as a proving ground for information operations later used in the United States. To his credit, Obama accepted this reality in 2016, when he expelled dozens of Russian diplomats, but this response was too little, too late.
By contrast, Trump authorized the sale of lethal defensive weapons to both Ukraine and Georgia in 2017. The Trump administration went beyond the congressional mandate in sanctioning Russian authorities involved in the annexation of Crimea. Earlier this year, the United States imposed the harshest sanctions yet, targeting Russian oligarchs as well as government officials.
Trump’s rhetoric on energy at the Helsinki summit, which has been largely overlooked, is also a reason for optimism. The backbone of the Russian economy is energy, and Russia’s dependence on fossil fuels is Putin’s Achilles heel. At Monday’s press conference, Trump stated that U.S. liquefied natural gas exports would “compete” with Russian gas in Europe. This reflects Trump’s comments at the NATO summit, where he criticized Germany for supporting the Nord Stream II pipeline. Trump was correct to call attention to this project, which will enrich the Kremlin at the expense of struggling pro-Western allies like Ukraine.
Trump Should Amp Up American Commitments
Nevertheless, I must caution President Trump that criticizing domestic opponents in front of foreign adversaries could have been misperceived by Putin as a concession. To quell this impression and fend off undesirable consequences, I recommend taking several steps.
First, the U.S. should return to the Reagan-era policy of containing Russia on every front. Trump’s support for a stronger military is central to this strategy. Just as President Reagan advanced “peace through strength,” Trump’s proposal for a Space Force echoes Reagan’s “Star Wars” defense program.
Reagan-era increases in military spending escalated the collapse of the USSR, as the Soviet economy could no longer sustain competition with the United States on military innovation and readiness. Likewise, Trump’s strengthening of U.S. defense will overstretch Russia’s resources to the breaking point. This is especially true when the Russian economy is weak, as it is today, and Russian power-brokers are cut off from capital markets due to sanctions.
Another way to contain Putin’s ambitions is to step up NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, offering countries like Georgia and Ukraine a roadmap to accession. In calling on NATO allies to increase military spending in line with their commitments to collective defense—while increasing the Pentagon’s budget—Trump is already taking a step in the right direction.
In his interview with Chris Wallace after the summit, Putin again articulated Russia’s bid for an exclusive zone of influence in Eastern Europe, stating that Russia would never allow Georgia or Ukraine to join NATO. The United States must also unequivocally refuse Russia’s bid for hegemony. America is at its strongest when conducting foreign policy that upholds American values.
Second, if Russian adventurism continues, Trump should respond by activating the “nuclear option” of sanctions: Blocking Russia’s access to the SWIFT international payment system. Moreover, Trump could amplify the impact of the effective sanctions against Russian oligarchs, by expanding these sanctions to Kremlin-connected businesses and individuals outside Russia, and their offshore accounts worldwide. The United States should also consider restricting the registration of Russian shell companies, which are often used for money laundering.
While these tough measures on Russia would advance U.S. interests and the security of my region, diplomacy is also necessary. We do not know what Trump and Putin discussed behind closed doors in Helsinki, and we should not make assumptions. As Reagan continued to meet with Soviet leadership until the Axis of Evil disintegrated, so Trump should continue talking to Putin.