Putin Has Outplayed Trump — and the US and Israel Have Suffered
In 2009, I wrote that Russians are the world’s best chess players, and that Vladimir Putin pursues foreign policy like a chess whiz who can see several moves ahead of his rivals. He put Barack Obama in check because of the president’s naivete, lack of experience, and incoherent foreign policy. Compared to Donald Trump, however, Obama was a chess grandmaster.
Consistent with the bizarre period we are in, Republicans have seemingly lost interest in fighting Communism and the man seeking to resurrect the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Jewish supporters excuse Trump’s bromance with Putin and inept handling of US-Russia relations for the same reason they ignore all his other failings — because they believe Trump is the most pro-Israel president in history. They overlook, however, how Putin has outplayed Trump and indirectly and directly damaged Israel’s interests.
Anything that damages US prestige, strength, and interests hurts Israel, which relies on American leadership to support it economically, politically, and diplomatically. To give just a few examples of how Trump’s policies vis-à-vis the Russians have been detrimental to America:
- Trump revealed “highly classified information” in a meeting with Russia’s Foreign Minister. Besides the substance of the leak, it was feared the disclosure would jeopardize intelligence-sharing with other nations.
- In 2018, Trump stood beside Putin and said he believed the KGB spymaster over US intelligence agencies regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election.
- Russia was kicked out of G-7 meetings for invading Crimea; nevertheless, Trump has repeatedly (most recently in June) sought to have Putin readmitted over the objections of other members.
- Trump has sabotaged relations with our European allies, thereby weakening NATO, which is one of Putin’s ambitions. Worse, Trump considered pulling out of NATO. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton said he convinced him not to do so.
- Turkey, a NATO member, ignored Trump’s warnings and purchased a Russian air defense system.
- Trump wants to withdraw troops from Germany, undermining US security interests in Europe, thus fulfilling another Putin objective.
- Rather than warning Putin that any bounties on US soldiers would be met with a severe response, he dismissed reports of the payments as a “hoax by the newspapers and the Democrats.”
- America’s leadership in support of human rights has been undermined by Trump’s silence regarding abuses in Russia.
Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul observed, “One thing [Trump] has been consistent about for four years is never criticizing Putin and always seeking to befriend him.”
Israel’s interests have been more directly affected, and potentially undermined, by a variety of other policies and missteps:
- In the aforementioned meeting where Trump revealed classified information to the Russians, he burned an Israeli intelligence operation that had alerted US and UK officials that ISIS had developed bombs for laptops that could not be detected by airport screening.
- After his predecessors had succeeded in the longstanding US goal of pushing Russia out of the Middle East, Obama let Russia build up its position in Syria to save Bashar al-Assad, and Trump has let this continue. Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion noted, “Russia gained a port on the Mediterranean, several air bases, some economic prospects, and an opportunity to tackle Turkey from the South, actually pull it away from NATO a bit.”
- By keeping Assad in power, Russia has protected Iran’s only Arab ally, allowed Iran to sustain a lifeline to Hezbollah, and given Iran the opportunity to establish a military presence in Syria.
- As with Obama, alienation and mistrust of the United States by Middle East allies has led them to strengthen ties with Russia.
- Russia is providing Egypt with advanced fighter jets and also signed a nuclear power deal. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also been purchasing Russian weapons.
- Russia is extending its reach into Libya, which has a long history of enmity toward Israel.
- Turkey, which has become increasingly belligerent toward Israel, now has a Russian air defense system that could threaten Israeli aircraft.
- Against Israeli advice, Trump withdrew US troops from Syria, strengthening President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, allowing Turkey the opportunity to crush Israel’s Kurdish allies, and emboldening Iran. According to Bolton, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer called the decision the “worst day he had experienced thus far in the Trump administration.”
- Trump wants to withdraw troops from Iraq (which he criticized Obama for doing), which would strengthen Iran’s position in that country and reduce Iran’s insecurity about possible US military action.
- Calling off a retaliatory strike after Iran downed a US drone and failing to respond to a ballistic missile attack on a US base and other Iranian provocations have emboldened Iran.
- Unlike Obama, Trump responded to Syria’s use of chemical weapons (CW), but only once, failing to deter additional CW attacks by Assad. The administration reported Syria’s “alleged” use of CW as recently as May 2019.
- Trump made the important decision of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and applying maximum pressure, but allowed Russia to continue work at Iranian nuclear sites until ending a waiver at the end of May 2020. Trump has wanted to meet with Iran’s leader and Bolton says he feared Trump might agree to ease sanctions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Bolton worked to prevent Trump from meeting with Iran’s foreign minister, according to the New York Times, because they “feared he would run rings around the president.”
Stephen Blank, writing at inFocus, whose publisher is the Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, summarized how Putin has outmaneuvered Trump:
Russia is now an indispensable and trusted interlocutor for almost every Middle Eastern state. … As everyone’s “dialogue partner,” Russia has successfully made political and strategic gains, obtained lucrative arms and energy contracts, consummated deals with OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), become a reliable interlocutor for Iran and Israel, coordinated with Turkey and Syria, created enduring power projection capabilities, gained military bases in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, and challenged the US role as the “security manager” of the region. Moreover, it has made lucrative economic deals with many Gulf states to circumvent Western sanctions, and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) has become an enabler and “advertising agent” for Russian power projection in Africa.
The good news is that despite Trump’s bungling, Putin’s miscalculations, notably overplaying his hand in challenging Saudi Arabia’s dominance of the oil market, and his Trump-like mismanagement of the coronavirus response, have recently damaged Russia’s standing in the region.
The better news is that Israel has developed an independent policy toward Russia that, most importantly, has allowed it freedom to attack targets in Syria.
Still, the weakening of the US position in the world and the strengthening of Israel’s adversaries are dangerous repercussions of Trump’s policies. If Trump has another four years, Putin may yet be able to say “Checkmate.”
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books including: The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews, and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.