The United States’ decision to conduct a military strike against the Russia-backed Syrian government Friday marks the latest in a series of actions that indicate President Donald Trump is beginning to move more aggressively against Russia, as his top advisers have urged.
But Trump still appears to be conflicted about his relationship with Russia and its leader, President Vladimir Putin.
James F. Collins, a U.S. ambassador to Russia in the 1990s, said Trump offered Russia its best hope of a better relationship but did not see any real overtures from Putin.
“In the last 15 months he has finally come to understand that it is going to be very difficult to do anything with Russia for the foreseeable future,” Collins said. “There really have been almost no tangible or real signs after the first six months or so from the Russian side.”
Last week, the Trump administration announced that it was imposing sanctions against seven Russians along with 12 companies they own or control and 17 senior Russian government officials.
Two days later, Trump called out Putin by name on Twitter for his backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose use of chemical weapons against his own civilians was the reason for Friday’s airstrike, conducted by the U.S., Britain and France.
Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path, or if it will join with civilized nations as a force for stability and peace
President Donald Trump
Russia has supported the Syrian government politically and militarily since the start of the nation’s seven-year-old civil war started. Since 2011, Russia has vetoed resolutions in the United Nations Security Council that either called for Assad’s resignation or sanctions against his government.
In his televised remarks announcing the strikes, Trump sent a message to Russia and Iran, Assad’s key allies.
“Russia must decide if it will continue down this dark path,” Trump said. And then added, as he had in a multi-tweet statement earlier in the week: “Hopefully someday we’ll get along with Russia...but maybe not,” he said.
Just last month, Trump invited Putin to Washington for a meeting at the White House.
“I think at a policy level, he wanted to improve relations with Russia,” said Nicholas Rostow, a national security aide to former President George W. Bush. “But Putin hasn’t made it easy on him because he’s trying to take advantage of what he sees as the U.S. strategic retreat in the Middle East.”
Still, James Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Iraq and deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush, said Trump sounded “very strong against Russia.”
Jeffrey said this is clearly a sign that Trump is willing to be tough on Russia, but he’s not seeing the full picture and threat.
“He is being tough on Russia on this, but that he’s focused only on the chemical weapons aspect of it,” he said. “He doesn’t understand that this is a manifestation of a far deeper problem that we have with Russia.”
Trump ordered the U.S. military to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in April 2017, but it did not stop Assad's use of chemical weapons.
The United States, France and Britain launched military strikes in Syria to punish Assad for a chemical weapons attack last weekend. Defense Secretary James Mattis said it was a one-time event.
But in his statement, the president said, “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents," Trump said.
Even as his administration has implemented sanctions, sent lethal aid to Ukraine and expelled Russian diplomats, Trump has shied away from speaking ill of Putin.
Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo told a Senate committee Thursday that he would be willing to break from Trump if necessary, saying he would take a tough line with Russia.
“Vladimir Putin has not yet received the message sufficiently,” Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, said this administration has been in the usual place of having a more hawkish Cabinet than the president.
"I think there is an 'everybody but Trump' administration policy," McFaul said, noting how Trump had to be convinced to impose tougher sanctions on Russia. "It would appear he has done it reluctantly, but he has been carried further than he was initially intending and further than what one thought he might be persuaded."
I don't know whether or not the Trump administration has a policy towards Russia in the traditional sense that agencies get together and debate objectives and strategies for achieving them. It's pretty clear that the president ... is not reacting according to some strategy and I think his tweets exemplify that.
Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014
Trump has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for his open admiration for Putin and for repeatedly rejecting the intelligence community’s analysis of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. And he has blasted special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations that his campaign colluded with the Kremlin to disrupt the 2016 campaign.
Late Friday, some Democrats immediately criticized Trump for striking Assad and not using other tools against Russia.
“Instead of implementing mandatory sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress, the president let Russia escape culpability for its protection of the murderous regime in Damascus,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Lesley Clark in Washington contributed.