Trump’s been tougher on Russia than Obama
By DAN SULLIVAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 29, 2019
Now that the Mueller investigation is over, we can put to bed the persistent and erroneous allegations that President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians to get him elected. Likewise, we should also put to bed another persistent and pernicious narrative: that the president and his administration have been “soft” on Russia.
This narrative has been continuously promulgated by a host of former Obama administration officials (see, for example, the recent Washington Post op-ed by a former U.S. ambassador to Russia) — and disseminated by a headline-chasing national media — who have attempted to disassociate the Trump administration’s Russia policies and actions from the president himself. They have done this by disparaging the president for his words but not crediting him for his administration’s actions.
I agree that the president’s rhetoric regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin should be tougher, but as his critics surely know, it is actions backed by power and force that ultimately matter in the world of international politics, not Obama-style soaring rhetoric. This is particularly true when it comes to Putin. And the record thus far clearly shows that the Trump administration, working with Republicans in Congress, has been far tougher on Russia than the Obama administration ever was.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Ukrainian leaders desperately requested from President Barack Obama defensive anti-tank weapons systems that could fend off the invading Russian T-72 tanks in eastern Ukraine. In 2015, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee — Democrats and Republicans — encouraged Obama to grant this request to help Ukraine defend itself. Obama refused. Soon after coming into office, Trump changed course, and the Ukrainians now have Javelin anti-tank weapons systems from the United States. Russian tank drivers have a lot more to worry about today.
The Trump administration has also replaced Obama’s reticence regarding U.S. troop deployments near Russia with a full embrace of the European Deterrence Initiative. In just more than two years in office, Trump has requested more than $17 billion for EDI compared with just $5 billion requested in Obama’s final three years in office. As a result, thousands of U.S. troops, along with other NATO allies, have deployed to Poland, the Baltics and Norway to deter further Russian expansion.
In the Middle East, Obama’s passive actions and policies — including a now-infamous unenforced “red line” — led to the rise of Islamic State and left an open door for Russian ground and air forces. Russian troops and their proxies, aligned with Iranian and Syrian forces, now occupy large swaths of territory in Syria. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has unleashed the United States’ military might in Syria, leading the efforts to destroy the ISIS territorial caliphate and militarily punishing Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. When Russian-backed proxies and possibly Russian military forces got too close to our special operations forces in Syria and failed to back off as warned, they were systematically destroyed by the U.S. military. And while much has been made of the president’s announcement of withdrawing troops from Syria, he has since pulled back to keep U.S. and NATO troops in the country.
More broadly, under Obama, the Pentagon’s budget was slashed by 25 percent from 2010 to 2016. Our military’s readiness, unsurprisingly, plummeted. This certainly emboldened Putin. By the end of Obama’s tenure, the Air Force was the smallest and oldest (in terms of aircraft age) it has ever been, and only a small fraction of the Army was combat-ready.
The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have reversed this hollowing out of our military by dramatically increasing funding. Readiness is returning. Trump’s national defense strategy clearly prioritizes Russia and China as rising great powers to which our military and nation must respond.
Finally, Trump has taken decisive action to unleash an instrument of American power that Putin fears the most: U.S. energy. I’ll never forget a meeting I attended with Sen. John McCain and a prominent Russian dissident, who told us that the No. 1 thing the United States could do to undermine Putin was to “produce more American energy.”
Crude oil production may have risen during the Obama administration, but that was only despite Democrats’ systematic efforts — which continue to this day — to undermine U.S. energy production on state and federal lands. As Alaska’s attorney general and the commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources, I fought the Obama administration’s consistent policies to delay and shut down hydrocarbon production in my state.
Fortunately, the Trump administration has reversed most of Obama’s harmful anti-energy policies. The United States is once again the world’s energy superpower — producing more renewables, oil and natural gas than any other country on Earth, including Russia and Saudi Arabia. And with Trump administration policies, such as opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for responsible energy production, U.S. energy dominance is likely to endure for decades.
So yes, Trump and his administration clearly have been tough on Russia — more so than his predecessor. Facts are stubborn things, and when it comes to Russia and Vladimir Putin, actions speak louder than words.
Dan Sullivan, a Republican, represents Alaska in the U.S. Senate. He is a member of the Armed Services Committee and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Readiness.