The idea of collusion with Russia has dogged Donald Trump throughout his campaign and presidency, and his handling of U.S. military aid to Ukraine has only added to the debate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has argued that withholding of assistance to Ukraine only benefited Russia and that “all roads lead to Putin.” Meanwhile, defenders of the president’s foreign policy have pointed toward various policies of the Trump administration vis-à-vis Russia as proof that his administration has maintained a tough stance against Moscow.
Both sides of this argument are missing an essential point. The very fact that Trump could handle aid to Ukraine in such a cavalier fashion demonstrates how little he actually cares about Ukraine or its conflict with Russia. Over the past three years, Trump’s “America First” stance has manifested as a neo-mercantilist and semi-isolationist strategy that views many of America’s economic, military and political commitments around the world as opportunities to be exploited for short-term gain, “bad deals” to be renegotiated along more favorable terms, or simply burdens to be shed. Trump cares about Ukraine’s fights against secessionists and corruption solely to the extent that these things affect domestic U.S. politics. Similarly, NATO can be useful to Trump’s agenda at times—at the moment, Trump is catching heat for his Middle East policies and wants allies to share the burden—but the North Atlantic alliance is otherwise a financial burden in Trump’s eyes, regardless of its role of keeping Russian expansion in check.
Russian president Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has spent the past two decades entrenching himself in power within Russia while working to restore the international influence and prestige that Russia lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his famous “Long Telegram,” George Kennan painted a picture of Russia as an insecure and opportunistic force, seeking to expand its power where and when it could but retreating in the face of resistance. Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy has largely conformed to Kennan’s insights, marked by episodic and opportunistic power grabs, constrained by the vigilance of the United States and its European allies. Throughout his leadership, Putin has sought to reassert Russian territorial control or political dominance over parts of the former Soviet Union, such as Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus, but has been checked in these endeavors by the expansions of NATO and the European Union into former Soviet territory. Putin has also developed or maintained partnerships with a handful of friendly autocrats in countries such as Cuba and Sudan, but he has generally been cautious against engaging in the type of overseas adventurism that eventually overextended the Soviet Union.
During the last three years, however, the U.S. commitment to containing Russian influence has been undermined by the Trump administration, giving Russia newfound opportunities to expand its global reach. This radical shift in priorities can be seen in U.S. policy towards the Middle East. The Trump administration has a handful of interests in the Middle East—maintaining access to oil, conducting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, outdoing President Barack Obama by striking a “better” deal with Iran. Everything else about U.S. commitment to the region is simply an unwanted expense in Trump’s eyes. He is happy to cede U.S. influence in the Middle East to Russia if doing so allows the United States to withdraw cheaply and quickly. (Trump said as much concerning Russia moving in to replace withdrawing American presence in northern Syria). Russia, while cautious not to overextend itself through large-scale military intervention into the region, is more than happy to create a client state in Syria, expand access to Iraq, and generally assume a greater role as a power broker in the Middle East.
President Trump’s indifference and Putin’s opportunism are on even greater elsewhere in the world. Top political and military officials in the Trump administration, such as then-National Security Advisor John Bolton and Africa Command leader General Stephen Townsend, have warned of the growing influence of both China and Russia in Africa. But President Trump himself has barely expressed any interest in Africa; the most attention the continent has gotten from the president has been in the form of an offensive denigration of African nations as “shit-hole countries” and a panicked reaction to a misleading Fox News story about possible white farm seizures in South Africa.
It is therefore not surprising that the Trump administration has been hesitant to commit resources or attention to Africa. The administration has conducted very few high-level visits to the continent and been slow to fill ambassador positions to a number of African countries. Some of the spots that have been filled have displayed questionable choices; Trump’s pick for ambassador to South Africa, for example, was a luxury handbag designer with no diplomatic experience who had not lived in that country for forty years (but who did hold a membership at Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida). The lack of attention to Africa has enabled Russia to step into the vacuum in countries such as Libya, where Trump’s public stance that the United States shouldn’t play a role in stabilizing the country allowed Moscow to openly back a rival to the UN-supported government.
As David Andelman argues concerning reports that the United States is scaling back its involvement in the AFRICOM joint command in West Africa, a major front in the fight against ISIS and other terror networks:
The decision [to pull back US military commitments in West Africa] can also likely be traced more deeply to Trump's utterly transactional view of foreign and military policy. With Africa, in his view, having a minimal tangible impact on American interests, and with no other nation in a position to foot the bill for American deployments on the continent, there is little reason to remain.
Russia, meanwhile, has stepped up its engagement from disparate bilateral relationships to a broader strategy. Vladimir Putin hosted the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi last fall, drawing leaders from forty-three African nations and striking over $12 billion in new deals. On top of these tangible overtures, Russia has implemented a new charm offensive in Africa, both drawing upon the history of Cold War-era cooperation between African nations and Moscow and presenting present-day Russia as an attractive alternative to exploitation by the United States, China or the former colonial powers of Western European.
The Trump administration’s approach towards Latin America has been one of exclusion and withdrawal, creating a window of opportunity for Moscow. Trump has prioritized curbing immigration from Mexico and Central America through stringent immigration and asylum policies, slashing aid to countries in the region to pressure them to stem the outflow of asylum seekers to the United States, and of course, building his signature southern border wall. Trump’s approach to South America has been characteristically idiosyncratic and fleeting. Ousting leftist President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela briefly became a personal cause for Trump, but by summer 2019 the consensus was that Trump had “lost interest” in Venezuela once it became clear that Maduro’s government was not in imminent danger of collapse. Relations with Colombia, America’s strongest South American partner, have also suffered from Trump’s disinterest and myopia. Trump bafflingly complained that Colombia’s new president Ivan Duque “has done nothing for us” in fighting the export of drugs from that country, and the U.S. president appeared to be unaware of recent threats to the peace deal between the Colombian government and former FARC rebels. “U.S.–Colombian relations appear to have devolved during Trump’s tenure,” argues Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Paul J. Angelo, “from a multi-faceted partnership to a relationship seen only through the lens of the war on drugs.” As in other regions, Russia has stepped in to fill the US-created vacuum in Latin America, granting substantial military aid and cooperation to Maduro and issuing threats to Colombia to discourage that country from intervening in the Venezuelan crisis.
Vladimir Putin has become emboldened enough to declare the death of western liberalism as the dominant political ideology of the world. Putin would like us to believe that both the geopolitical decline of Moscow and the end of history that Francis Fukuyama proposed were actually temporary phenomena that are actively being corrected. Russia’s hostility to liberal democracy is more than rhetoric or ideology; Putin’s agents have a long history of interfering in elections around the world. After its intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, Russia has become increasingly brazen in its attempts to manipulate votes around the world in favor of Moscow’s preferred candidates or to sow discord within its potential Western opponents. In making such moves, Putin has experienced little pushback from Trump, who not only rode a wave of right-wing populism in the West (and a dose of Russian election interference) to come into power but who has also shown an inordinate fondness for dictators and strongmen, including, of course, Putin.
All this is not to say that Putin will succeed in all these endeavors. In Africa for instance, several examples of misguided and heavy-handed Russian interference into local politics have soured Russia’s image in the eyes of the public in a number of countries such as South Africa, Sudan and Madagascar. Similarly, outside of Venezuela and longtime ally Cuba, Russia’s footprint in Latin America remains small in terms of economic or military cooperation. Putin’s attempts to manage domestic unrest in Russia and restructures the Russian political system may demand increasing shares of the Russian leaders’ attention and energy and distract from international endeavors and Russia lacks the overall economic power to match the superpower status of the United States or a rising China.