Trump’s real strategy for facing Putin: speak softly and buy more nukes

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If Congress approves his $54 billion rise in the defence budget, he will be outspending Moscow by a factor of 11

Donald Trump has not lost his capacity to surprise: few would have bet on him starting his address to Congress with praise for Black History Month. Tuesday night’s speech was the nearest Trump has come to acting like a traditional president. But one thing conspicuous by its absence was any mention of Russia. To Europeans, his Russia policy remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Four things make Trump’s approach to Moscow particularly hard to fathom. First is the fact that no one is sure who really speaks for him on foreign policy. What should Europe make of vice-president Mike Pence’s soothing words at the recent Munich Security Conference? Or regular efforts at reassurance by James Mattis, his defense secretary, and Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state?

Then there’s the Russian state inserting itself into the US election process. People wonder, understandably, why the Kremlin would have bothered doing this if it didn’t feel it had something to gain. (It does seem that it was motivated as much by dislike for Hillary Clinton as anything else.) And the lurid rumours about Trump’s personal links with Russia further muddy the waters. The claims include everything from the idea that his property empire was helped through the financial crisis by ‘grey money’ from oligarchs to the allegation that the authorities there have compromising material showing him involved in a bizarre act with hookers in a Moscow hotel.

What is certainly true is that some of Trump’s inner circle have an alarmingly rosy view of Vladimir Putin. There is a worrying amount of admiration for him as a strong leader who stands up for his country’s interests. This is mixed with a sense that Russia is entitled to a near-abroad — that its post-Cold War status must be handled with care to avoid a repeat of Germany and Versailles.

The final complicating factor is the desire of some in the Trump camp to use the Russians as a French Foreign Legion-style force. The theory is that the Putin regime could bear casualties while clearing Isis out of Syria in a way that a western democracy could not, so it should be encouraged to do so. One of the flaws with this idea is that it is in neither Putin’s nor the Syrian leader Assad’s interests to totally wipe out the Islamic State.

Despite all this, the British government now feels that it has a far better handle on the Trump administration’s Russia policy. It has heard from those close to Trump in the White House, as well as the Pentagon and the State Department, and is now confident it knows what Washington’s approach will be…



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