From Russia With Love? Putin’s Realpolitik Threatens Trump’s “MAGA”

CONRAD C. WITTE – On February 14, 2017, the New York Times reported that the Russian military had secretly deployed a new model of cruise missile that violates a 1987 arms control treaty between the United States and Russia.[1] While this is not the first time that the U.S. government has alleged a Russian violation of the treaty,[2] this is the first such violation under the new Trump Administration and presents a key test for Mr. Trump’s still undefined foreign policy.

The treaty at the center of the violation is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (“INF”) Treaty, which was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987.[3] Per the State Department, the INF Treaty “requires destruction of the Parties’ ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. . . .”[4] This treaty, like other Cold War arms control agreements, was characteristic of long-standing U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union and, later, the Russian Federation – the idea that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”[5]

For seventy years now, George Kennan’s words have, for the most part, formed the backbone of American foreign policy towards Russia.[6] During the Cold War, the policy of containment sought to stem the expansion of Soviet communism through alliances and military engagement in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia.[7] Following the end of the Cold War, this policy has shifted from one of ideological containment to classic geopolitical containment, though this policy has varied from administration to administration.[8]

Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Russia has begun to undertake a more aggressive posture in these regions, specifically in Syria and Ukraine. Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014,[9] its continued support for Eastern Ukrainian separatists,[10] and its alleged role in the July 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17,[11] along with Russia’s continued support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad[12] are all examples of this new policy of Russian aggression and expansion of influence in Europe and the Middle East.

Russia’s increasingly aggressive posturing, including the alleged violation of the INF Treaty and the placement of illegal cruise missiles, presents a serious challenge for President Trump’s new administration and foreign policy. To date, President Trump’s foreign policy objectives, like many of the President’s proposed policies, may be generously termed “vague.” On January 7, 2017, President-Elect Trump tweeted that “[h]aving a good relationship with Russia is a good thing . . . Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!”[13] and “[w]hen I am President, Russia will respect us more than they do now . . . .”[14] Further complicating these positions includes the fact that during the 2016 campaign, then-candidate Trump repeatedly stated that “I think NATO is obsolete”[15] and maintained his belief that the United States was paying too much compared to other NATO states.[16]

These two divergent assertions – Russian respect for U.S power and Russia as a viable world partner – are directly at odds with each other and go against decades of established relations between the two powers. Given Russia’s increasingly aggressive actions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and President Trump’s ill-defined foreign policy objectives, the alleged missile treaty violation by the Russians creates a significant and dangerous test for President Trump’s greatest campaign promises: To “make American great again” and to open relations with Russia. In this case, President Trump simply cannot have it both ways. As Russian aggression continues to escalate around the world, it remains to be seen which of these President Trumps will emerge to lead.

[1] Michael R. Gordon, Russia Deploys Missile, Violating Treaty and Challenging Trump, N.Y. Times (Feb. 14, 2017),

[2] See Russia Denies Breaking Treaty After Alleged Missile Deployment, BBC News (Feb. 14, 2017),

[3] Gordon, supra note 1.

[4] Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On The Elimination Of Their Intermediate-Range And Shorter-Range Missiles (INF Treaty), U.S. Dep’t of State, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, And Compliance,

[5] “X” (George F. Kennan), The Sources of Soviet Conduct, Foreign Aff., July 1947, at 566, 575.

[6] Kennan and Containment, U.S. Dep’t of State, Office of the Historian: Milestones: 1945-1952,

[7] Id.

[8] Compare Gregory Feifer, Tensions Rise in U.S.-Russia Relationship, NPR (Nov. 30, 2007, 2:57 PM), (describing rise of tensions between U.S. and Russia during George W. Bush Administration), with Luke Harding and Matthew Weaver, Barack Obama Calls For ‘Reset’ In US-Russia Relations, The Guardian (July 7, 2009, 4:56 PM), (describing the new Obama Administration’s eventually unsuccessful attempt at resetting relations with Russia).

[9] Euan McKirdy, Russia: ‘We’re Not Returning Our Territory’ Crimea to Ukraine, CNN (Feb. 16, 2017, 12:11 PM),

[10] In U.N. Lawsuit, Ukraine Demands Russia End Support for Separatists, Reuters (Jan. 17, 2017, 6:58 AM),

[11] Andrew Roth, Dutch probe: Missile brought from Russia downed Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine, Washington Post (Sept. 26, 2016),

[12] Luke Coffey, Russia’s Priority is the Survival of Assad’s Regime, Al Jazeera (Nov. 18, 2015),

[13] Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter (Jan. 7, 2017, 9:02 AM),

[14] Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter (Jan. 7, 2017, 9:10 AM),

[15] Transcript: Donald Trump Expounds on His Foreign Policy Views, N.Y. Times (Mar. 26, 2016),

[16] Campaign 2016: Trump on the Issues, Council on Foreign Relations,

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