There was a time when Donald Trump could make a compelling case for his administration’s approach to containing the aggressive and reckless regime in Moscow. To judge from the president’s performance during a recent interview with Axios reporter Jonathan Swan, that time is over.
When the president was pressed about recent intelligence reports that suggest Russia has paid bounties to Afghan insurgent groups, including the Taliban, to mount attacks on U.S. troops, Trump became defensive. Not of his administration’s conduct, mind you, but of himself. He confessed that he did not bring up the matter in a bilateral conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He claimed the intelligence was “fake news,” and that it never got to his desk or he would have acted on it (it did, and he did not). He spent the next 60 seconds explaining how much literature he consumes—a point of personal pride that generated more visible indignation from the president than Russia’s alleged acts of war against the United States.
More disturbing, when pressed about Russia’s strategic investments in Afghanistan, the president reverted to an odious form—deploying bankrupt moral equivalencies in place of a convincing argument. Presented with the hypothetical that the intelligence around the bounties plot was flawed, Swan noted that there is no dispute from the Pentagon, at least, that Russia is providing material support (including weapons) to the Taliban. “I’m just saying, we did that, too,” the president replied. Trump played dumb when pressed on the matter, insisting that he had “heard that” Moscow could be funding Taliban operations—perhaps when Gen. John Nicholson testified to that effect before Congress—but the matter, again, never reached his desk. Moreover, “Russia doesn’t want anything to do with Afghanistan.” Maybe you’ve heard about a little thing called the Soviet-Afghan War? Checkmate.
As usual, the president did himself no favors. Amid this self-serving scramble to secure some defensible terrain, Trump made several admissions against interest: He is generally unconcerned with the intelligence around the bounties plot; he is unfamiliar with Russia’s strategic and long-term investments in Afghanistan’s post-American future; and he believes it is appropriate to compare the Russo-American dynamic today to the proxy battles that raged during the Cold War.
If the results on Election Day bear even a passing resemblance to the current polling, Trump won’t have to worry about competition from Russia for much longer. But Joe Biden most certainly will. The next president will inherit, among other lamentable conditions, an unstable relationship with a revanchist Russia. If he intends to manage that relationship as Barack Obama did, he will only make things worse.
The president is right on one point: The United States is, in fact, involved in another global conflict with interests loyal to and funded by Russia, and it has been since at least 2015. Since then, following Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, Russian regulars and proxy forces have come into contact with American troops and proxies in Syria with disturbing regularity—occasionally, resulting in direct combat. Russia continues to bankroll and equip non-state actors in Eastern Ukraine, and it has waged an aggressive covert campaign to destabilize NATO-allied states within the former Soviet space.
The Kremlin’s diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East—ranging from conflict mediation to arms deals—are designed to displace Washington’s influence. Moscow has maintained a permanent presence in Afghanistan since 2014, collaborating with anti-Western insurgent groups in preparation for the vacuum the United States will leave when its advisory forces eventually withdraw.
The Defense Department has long behaved as though Russia has achieved parity with the United States in the cyber arena and has reportedly intensified “digital incursions” into critical Russian infrastructure (possibly without the president’s foreknowledge). Russia’s support for and deployments to rogue regimes around the world, from Cuba to Venezuela to North Korea—represent a direct threat to American national security.
The Trump administration has done its best to meet some of these challenges, often competently. Others have been handled more carelessly. Regardless, if Biden wins, his administration will inherit them all. This White House’s Democratic opposition talks a good game about the need for a more proactive containment policy for Russia, but they contradict themselves. If the Biden administration intends to resurrect Barack Obama’s Russia policy, Moscow will enjoy a freer hand than ever.
To his credit, Biden is on the record supporting the preservation of American military superiority over near-peer competitors like Russia and China, endorsing a “return to great power competition.” He has supported NATO expansion and endorsed the forward deployment of allied troops to the Russian frontier. That’s all well and good, but these goals conflict with his more ideological objectives.
Biden has pledged to reverse the Trump administration’s efforts to reimpose diplomatic isolation on Cuba, even as Havana props up the illegitimate Venezuelan regime—a regime which has played host to nuclear-capable Russian bombers. Biden’s vague and often contradictory preferred energy policies have left the door open to curtailing U.S. domestic production—a miracle of modern innovation that national security officials have testified augments the financial and political pressures on Vladimir Putin. Biden has been an outspoken opponent of direct U.S. intervention in Syria but, also, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syrian soil. He has tacitly endorsed the prospect of a de facto divided and jointly administered Syria, alongside Russia. Such an outcome would secure several core Russian objectives—among them, the preservation of the Assad regime while committing the U.S. to an open-ended conflict in defense of no defined interest.
Perhaps most ominously, Biden remains committed to rejoining the Iran nuclear accords—a fanciful prospect following nearly three years of open, albeit undeclared, warfare between the United States and Iran. It was the pursuit of the Iran Deal (and the contributions Russia would make to its preservation) that compelled the Obama administration to look the other way as Moscow exacerbated tensions in Syria. It was that initiative that helped the Kremlin avoid pariah status following the invasion and annexation of Crimea. And it was the Iran deal negotiations that allowed Russia to evade meaningful sanctions from Washington only until the Kremlin brazenly intervened in the 2016 elections. A Biden administration that is serious about imposing consequences on Russia cannot also reengage with Iran as though it was still 2015.
The Biden campaign has no incentive to resolve these contradictions before Election Day—not while the president is providing him with political cover by playing defense counsel for Vladimir Putin. But if he is elected, his administration won’t be able to hide behind Trump. A Biden presidency that resurrects Barack Obama’s Russia policy will not be one committed to mitigating the threat posed by Moscow.