Who’s really tougher on Russia?
Recently, President Donald Trump tweeted, “I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. Total Fake News!”
The tweet was greeted with incredulity in some press circles. CNN called it “simply false.” “The facts suggest the opposite,” said the Washington Post. “Mostly false,” declared Politifact, noting the president’s statement “immediately drew guffaws among media commentators.”
The reaction left some Republican national security and foreign policy hands shaking their heads. How could one add up the actions that Trump has taken on Russia, compare them to Barack Obama, and conclude that Trump was not tougher?
In a text exchange, I asked one GOP lawmaker: If you believe Trump has been tougher on Russia, what is the best evidence? He quickly came back with a list. The U.S. is, he said:
1) Bombing Syria, Russia’s main client, and generally unleashing the U.S. military in Syria, including against Russians when necessary.
2) Arming Ukraine.
3) Browbeating NATO allies to increase defense spending.
4) Adding low-yield nukes to our arsenal.
5) Starting research and development on an INF non-compliant missile.
6) Shutting Russia’s San Francisco consulate.
To clarify some of the less-obvious references, on the “arming Ukraine” front, the lawmaker noted the Trump administration’s decision to supply Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles.
The “low-yield nukes” reference is to developing a new generation of (relatively) small nuclear weapons that, The New York Times noted, “advocates say are needed to match Russian advances.”
The “INF non-compliant missile” refers to U.S. work on a new missile that does not comply with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and is “a direct response to Russia’s deployment in recent years of its own treaty-busting missile,” according to Time magazine.
The items on the list were all solid, hard-edged measures designed specifically to push back against Russian aggression.
So why do so many believe Obama was tougher on Russia? It wasn’t that Obama took a harder line against Russian adventurism; just the opposite. “Under President Obama, Vladimir Putin hardly had reason to fear that anyone would push back on anything,” John Bolton, the UN ambassador under George W. Bush, noted recently.
But some journalists cite the measures Obama took in December 2016 in retaliation for Russian attempts to influence the presidential election as a case-closed argument that Obama was tougher. “Thirty-five diplomats were expelled,” explained CNN’s Tom Foreman. “They imposed sanctions on Russian businesses and agencies that were involved, and they closed two Russian compounds here in the United States. … You can certainly say Barack Obama could have been tougher, but any evidence that Donald Trump has been tougher than him, no, there is none. The statement is simply false.”
Yes, Obama’s December 2016 actions were actual punitive measures. But it’s hard to compare them to the lawmaker’s list of Trump actions.
The problem could be that some Trump critics appear to think of Russia only in terms of countering online election interference. They don’t seem to think that real, physical-world actions, like blowing up Russian mercenaries and building new missiles and bombs, constitute a tough policy toward Russia.
It’s an attitude that baffles some Republicans. “Sending Javelins to Ukraine and bombing that Syrian airfield is a bigger deal than virtually anything we could do to the ‘troll factory,’ the GOP lawmaker said, referring to the Russians who created politically divisive Facebook ads and posts during the 2016 election season.
There are Republicans who would like to see the Trump administration be tougher still on Russia. Long before the 2016 election, they urged presidents Bush and Obama to take a harder line against Putin. There is still much that President Trump could do.
But when it comes to comparing Trump and Obama, those Republicans ask that Americans look at the whole picture, and not just a fight over Facebook ads.