America and Russia: Friends or Foes?
On November 8, 2016, America elected Donald J. Trump as its president. Although many expected Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton to win, Democratic National Committee (DNC) email leaks that were published on WikiLeaks on July 22, 2016 may have lowered her chances of becoming the 45th President. These leaks initiated a CIA investigation in December 2016 that concluded that Russia had meddled with the U.S. election to prevent Clinton from winning. Throughout Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, many connections have been found between Russia and the president, his campaign team, his family, and others in his administration, prompting numerous inquiries. However, these links don’t necessarily mean that the two countries are allies; in fact, it may be the exact opposite.
Up until January of this year, Trump completely denied Russia (or anyone) helping him to win the election. However, after admitting in a news conference on January 11, 2017 that he believed Russia was behind the election hacks, the Trump campaign had contact with the Russian administration, proven by the emails released last month requesting the Trump team to meet with state officials.
Additionally, the president appointed Michael Flynn, a retired United States Army Lieutenant General, as his National Security Advisor despite former President Barack Obama advising against this. Flynn was soon fired on February 13th for the events following five phone calls he had exchanged with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., on December 29, 2016. The calls were about the sanctions that Obama had placed on Russia that day in response to the hacking efforts. However, when questioned by Vice President Mike Pence and others, Flynn maintained that the sanctions hadn’t come up in the calls, causing the Trump team to release false statements to the public. Nevertheless, Trump has continued to speak positively about Flynn and has ostensibly even tried to end an investigation into Flynn’s possible collusion with Russia. This inquiry was spurred by work Flynn did for a company linked to the Turkish government while on the Trump campaign and his undisclosed payments from foreign sources (such as the $45,000 he received from RT, the Kremlin-financed TV network, for attending and speaking at a Moscow gala).
Raising further questions about President Trump’s ties to Russia, on May 9, 2017, he fired FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating whether Trump’s advisors were colluding with Russia to alter the result of the presidential election. Although he explained that firing was due to Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s usage of a private email server while she was Secretary of State, Comey’s work has benefitted Trump, sparking debates about his real motives. With all the scenarios of Russia collusion that have occurred, the administration had landed itself in hot water. On May 17, 2017, the Justice Department Appointed Robert Mueller as the special counsel to oversee the Russian probe. Mueller would later find many connections between the two parties that could potentially cause the impeachment of the Trump administration.
Two months later, at the G20 summit, Trump sat down with Vladimir Putin to discuss whether Russia had interfered with the U.S. election. Predictably, Putin denied any involvement in the U.S. election by the Russian government, and despite the detailed investigation done by the U.S. intelligence community, Trump believed him. Furthermore, the U.S. president announced that he and Putin had agreed to work together in order to stop election hacking, a decision that was met with huge amounts of criticism from the American public.
Unfortunately for the Trump administration, emails from June 2016 between Donald Trump Jr. and Rob Goldstone, a trusted intermediate, about the prospect of Russia having damaging information about Clinton surfaced. The emails set up a meeting between Trump Jr. and Kremlin-connected Lawyer Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, adding yet another link between the Trump campaign and Russia. However, when questioned about the meeting, Trump Jr. released a public statement explaining that it was about adoptions of Russian children by American families (which had ended a few years prior). Despite claims that nothing came out of the meeting and that it was a waste of time, officials are investigating the meeting as a possible source of conspiracy. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, also attended the meeting. Both men are under investigation for ties to Russia: Kushner had left several interactions that he had had with Russians during the campaign off of his federal disclosure form, and Manafort had done a large amount of profitable work for wealthy pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians and a Russian oligarch close to Putin, raising questions about his finances.
Although the Trump administration seems to have close ties with Russia, a sanctions bill written by Congress has worsened the relationship between the two countries. The legislation aims to punish Russia for the election meddling, annexation of Crimea, continuation of military activity in East Ukraine, and human rights abuses along as well as curb Trump’s power to ease the sanctions already in place. It also includes sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Though the bill passed almost unanimously in the House and the Senate, President Trump was in a serious predicament when the bill landed on his desk. If he vetoed it, he would look even more guilty of colluding with Russia, but approving it would anger the Russians and his previous efforts to improve the relations would be rendered useless. In the end, he went with the second choice, and as predicted, Russia wasn’t too pleased. In response, Putin ordered the U.S. to cut staff at its diplomatic missions to Russia by 755 people and the Kremlin seized two U.S. diplomatic properties.
While many people in the Trump campaign team, administration, and family are linked to Russia, these connections have caused the U.S. to pass legislation that prompted the removal of more than half of the U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia, demonstrating that the United States and Russia are starting to drift apart. However, Trump called the bill flawed which was presumably an attempt to reconcile with Russia though it didn’t seem to have an effect on them. Overall, whether this will lead to another Cold War is up to what the future holds, though based on the current state of affairs, it doesn’t seem too unlikely.