MAGA vs. Russia

Along with Beijing, Moscow challenges the global leadership of Washington. Trump never gives anything away for free. His reflex is to protect what America controls and to reclaim what she used to master. That, in the long run, entails confronting both the Chinese and the Russians. It is reflexive, automatic, and axiomatic, a sine qua non of a Trumpian foreign policy that is supposed to “Make America Great Again.”


By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz l January 17, 2018

Gideon Rachman/FT

On the face of it, President Donald Trump’s Russia policy is reactive, and not proactive; it is tactical and not strategic. It consists of piecemeal tactical maneuvers but, in fact, it is a combination of continuity and improvisation. Trump’s approach to Moscow is adversarial reflexively because of MAGA – “Make America Great Again.”

America cannot be “great again” if it is perceived to yield to others in the international arena. Vladimir Putin’s strategic goals conflict everywhere with MAGA. He wants to restore Moscow’s power over the post-Soviet zone and reassert himself in vital areas of America’s interest: the Middle and Far East. Since Russia’s objectives conflict with America’s goals, the White House and the Kremlin have clashed.

By shilling for Donald Trump during the U.S. presidential election, Vladimir Putin expected much more than what he has been receiving. In fact, the Chekist got nothing from the showman, so far. Instead of some kind of Reset-2 and cozying up to the Kremlin, we have a hard-nosed conflict of interest that cannot be horse-whispered away. That means that the President of the United States, in his usual twittery bombastic and bumbling way, aims to protect his nation’s interest vis-à-vis all contenders, including the Russian Federation. The Commander-in-Chief is nobody’s stooge, even if he is willing to do business with everyone. That is not good enough for Putin.

Trump’s Moscow policy is reactive for the most part, but it also tends to draw on certain pre-set patterns, conceived during the Cold War. One can easily discern the traces of both the Truman and Reagan Doctrines. Trump has pledged to protect our allies, within and without NATO, to maintain the status quo. And, he gingerly considers emboldening freedom fighters, even if, ultimately, he draws limits for the American support, as with the Kurds, for instance. Trump treats the Ukrainians in a similar way. Washington is friendly and encouraging, supplying humanitarian and lethal assistance, but not yet the big guns that Kyiv wants. Further, the prospect of the U.S. going to war for Ukraine are extremely distant to non-existent.

The White House is much more-firm, as far as support for our allies on the eastern flank of NATO. There, Trump presides over the expansion of the American commitment from Estonia to Bulgaria. It appears that the allied armed forces are the main beneficiaries for now, but where there is security and U.S. government largesse and encouragement, American businesses follow. Very discretely, Trump has encouraged the commencement of the erection of an infrastructure of the Intermarium, a pro-American bloc in the post-Soviet zone, between the Black, Adriatic, and Baltic Seas. Most of the participants are members of both the EU and NATO. Thus, they are largely integrated into the Western security and economic systems. That galls Putin.

How does Russia move?

Along with Beijing, Moscow challenges the global leadership of Washington. Trump never gives anything away for free. His reflex is to protect what America controls and to reclaim what she used to master. That, in the long run, entails confronting both the Chinese and the Russians. It is reflexive, automatic, and axiomatic, a sine qua non of a Trumpian foreign policy that is supposed to “Make America Great Again.”

Both China and Russia are threats and opportunities. Whereas, the former puts us at unease because of its economic might, the latter makes us jittery because it is the only power in the world capable of destroying us. The Russian Federation has inherited the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union. This, in and of itself, puts Moscow in the category of its own.

Propelled by a revanchist post-Communist ideology, Russia has embarked on an imperialist foreign policy to reintegrate the post-Soviet zone. The way Moscow perceives its situation is that it is squeezed by Beijing in Central Asia, and encircled by the West in Eastern and Central Europe. Russia has asserted itself as evidenced by its increasingly bold thrusts against its neighbors: Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Moscow’s conflict with Kyiv resulted in the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, a de facto protectorate over eastern Ukraine, and a frozen conflict there, which occasionally flares up. Russian armies menace its former Baltic dependencies and others.

Being reasonable for Trump is to let him win. Putin will have none of that.

Hence, Putin has challenged the United States not only in the post-Soviet zone, but everywhere he can. This includes not only the Middle and Far East, but also America itself via cyberwarfare. The Internet is a fabulous boon for the Kremlin for it can now practice political warfare in the guise of public diplomacy and deception by reaching the American public directly above the heads of Washington.

In Syria, the U.S. did the flying and the Russian Federation did the dying, but now, with the apparent defeat of the Islamic State, it is Moscow’s clients who are the strongest party in that hapless country. Russia has essentially facilitated for Iran a land bridge to Lebanon, which threatens Israel. Meanwhile, the Shia continue to dominate in Bagdad with the strongest parties backed by Teheran to the great delight of Moscow. The Turks likewise appear more simpatico with the Russians than with us.

Russia has further shored up its position in Central Asia and the Far East. It edged us out of Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors. The Kremlin has cozied up to the Taliban in Afghanistan. As far as North Korea, we focused on China, correctly assuming that Beijing was chief sponsor of Pyongyang. But Moscow is also in the game. It has assisted North Korea in a variety of ways, including by providing it with oil, employment for its slaves, and infrastructure for its Internet connections. Putin has endeavored to thwart our moves to contain Kim. In fact, he has managed to thwart the U.S., in most places, except Central and Eastern Europe.

What’s next?

Trump’s reflexes on Russia are sound. Yet, he lacks a clear-cut strategy vis-à-vis the Kremlin. Instead, he executes frantically a series of tactical moves that seem to be driven by presidential tweets. Having personalized foreign policy to a narcissistic extent, the President believes that all matters, foreign and domestics, are his. He owns them. They are his personal business. The chief executive proceeds accordingly. The Kremlin correctly sees the dynamics as detrimental to its goal of Making Russia Great Again. That should not be able to happen under the watch of a MAGA President.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, A Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is author of Intermarium: The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas and teaches a seminar on the history of the Muslim world at Patrick Henry College. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the Online-Conservative-Journalism Center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

Related Articles