Most critics say U.S. President Donald Trump is too soft on Russia and unwilling to criticize it or Russian President Vladimir Putin—for example, on election interference, placing a bounty on the killing of U.S. soldiers, or continuing aggression in Ukraine. It is striking, therefore, to see a large number of experienced and respected U.S. foreign-policy experts criticize the administration’s approach to Russia as too hard-line, calling instead in an open letter for a “rethink” of U.S.-Russia policy.
The argument for rethinking Russia policy arises with surprising regularity. U.S. President George W. Bush took office in 2001 seeking to build a fresh relationship with the newly elected Putin, famously saying he got “a sense of his soul” during a meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia. By the end of Bush’s tenure in January 2009, however, his understanding of Putin had changed. The year before, Putin had orchestrated a sham role-swap with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in order to stay in power. That came after a long list of other troubling activities, including, among other things, selling radars to Iraq as the United States was ramping up pressure on Saddam Hussein, recklessly murdering the Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko in London, driving a wedge between NATO allies over missile defense, supporting Iran’s supposedly civilian nuclear program, and stopping implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. In August 2008, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia. In response, NATO suspended the NATO-Russia Council, which Russia had long stopped taking seriously anyway.
Despite that record, President Barack Obama came into office hoping for a “reset” with Russia, to the dismay of Georgia, whose territory remained occupied, as well as U.S. allies in the Baltic states, Poland, and the Czech Republic, who feared further Russian aggression. The administration’s decision on Sept. 17, 2009—the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939—to seek greater cooperation with Russia by rewriting U.S. missile defense plans further shocked Polish and Czech allies.
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