Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came to Washington this week riding a wave of Russian diplomatic activity to strengthen the Kremlin’s position in Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, and across the wider European continent. The visit is both a surprise and a warning — indicating that U.S.-Russia bilateral consultations are ripening and will likely culminate in a summit this summer between President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin.
But Trump should have avoided the temptation to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov today during his visit to the United States, instead allowing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take the reins while assessing what exactly Moscow wants from a leadership summit. Even more importantly, Trump needs to define what the United States seeks to achieve, whether those objectives are realistically attainable, and whether they serve long-term U.S. interests. Using means without clear ends is destined to result in disaster. Before President Trump sat down with Lavrov, he should have first devised a comprehensive Russia policy and strategy, which is dangerously absent at the moment.
As he does this, Trump would be wise to reflect on Russia’s recent actions. Last month, Trump chose to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria after Bashar al-Assad’s forces conducted a chemical weapons attack from a military base where Russian troops are reported to have a presence. Whether Moscow knew in advance is almost immaterial. The Kremlin and its Iranian allies have sustained Assad’s conventional and unconventional killing machine for over six years now, and show no signs of focusing their attention on the Islamic State. President Trump should not be swayed by Russia’s most recent efforts to set up “safe” or “de-escalation” zones whose primary purpose, rather than protect innocent civilians, is to limit American military engagement, further entrench the Assad regime, and ensure Moscow ultimately controls Syria’s fate.
In Ukraine, Russia has tested the new administration. A month after President Trump’s inauguration, Moscow formally recognized passports issued by its secessionist puppet states in eastern Ukraine, and Russian economic links to the breakaway regions have multiplied since. Fighting flared after Trump’s election and an American paramedic on an OSCE monitoring mission was recently killed in the conflict zone. The Kremlin also refuses to hand over control of Ukraine’s external border to Kiev, despite its commitment to follow through on this under the Minsk ceasefire agreement.
Further west, Putin continues his efforts to delegitimize democratic ballots and generate moral equivalence between his repressive, kleptocratic system of governance in Russia and those that hold genuinely free and fair elections. Instead of proceeding more cautiously after the intervention in the 2016 U.S. election, Moscow has doubled down, deepening its attempt to subvert French elections. Russia’s