What has Trump's policy actually been toward Russia?

Elliot Kaufman
President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the their bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany July 7, 2017.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

Anyone who knows anything about President Trump knows that there's something up with him and Russia. Yesterday, Donald Trump Jr. basically admitted to at least attempted collusion. And there is the long list of often embarrassingly positive statements Trump Sr. has made about the Russian president. Frank Bruni compiled them in a recent column for the New York Times. Yet there is something missing from Bruni's article, and often, from the larger narrative about the Trump campaign's alleged collusion with the Russians: a single mention of policy.

That omission is telling. Trump's comments might be suggestive, and his campaign team may well have sought and even used anti-Clinton information from Russian sources, but his policies have thus far been revealing—and not of any particular softness on Russia. Just the opposite: Where Obama was weak, the Trump administration has pursued a tough-on-Russia foreign policy.

Take Trump's recent trip to Poland, a nation that has on occasion seen Russian troops and never wants to see them again. Look past the noise surrounding Trump's excellent speech. Instead, focus on the air-defense memorandum signed on Thursday. "The U.S. government has agreed to sell Poland Patriot missiles in the most modern configuration," Poland's defense minister Antoni Macierewicz announced. This provides a real measure of Trump's support for Poland, which is understandably nervous about the Russian Iskander missile system to be deployed in Kaliningrad.

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This move also contrasts sharply with the Obama administration's decision in 2009 to scrap missile-defense plans for Poland and the Czech Republic. Many Poles, including the heroic former president Lech Walesa, interpreted that as an abandonment.

While Trump may try to leverage this personal relationship into Russian strategic compromises — he would not be the first or second president to try — American and Russian interests are simply not aligned.

Trump and Andrzej Duda, the president of Poland, also discussed American natural-gas shipments to Poland, the first of which arrived only last month. Trump is pushing American and Polish companies to sign a long-term liquefied natural gas (LNG) deal, though he won't have to push very hard.

This is part of Trump's strategy to achieve "energy dominance," as he put it last week. "We will export American energy all around the world," Trump said. Rick Perry, the U.S. secretary of energy, explained that the plan seeks to counter Russian influence. The goal is to provide vulnerable European nations with an "alternative to Russia" so they can no longer be "held hostage." Trump echoed these comments in Poland.

This initial memorandum of understanding with Poland is only the plan's first step. More is planned. As Investors Business Daily notes:

Poland has just built a massive Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal on the Baltic as an entry point for gas from the U.S. and other energy suppliers. What's more, that terminal is big enough, according to estimates, to replace as much as 80% of Russia's gas supplies to Poland. All of the Baltic nations — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — are likewise building LNG facilities. Croatia plans to open its own LNG terminal in 2019.

Already, Trump has offered to export American coal to Ukraine, which Russia has long bullied with actual or threatened cuts in natural-gas exports. The other nations at the recent Three Seas Initiative attended by Trump (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria) would like U.S. energy too.

There is perhaps nothing the Russians fear more than American oil and gas production. It has the potential to supplant Russian gas exports, which are crucial to Russia's coffers as well as its strategic ambitions. The absence of a strong "oil weapon" functioning as both carrot and stick would substantially reduce Russia's ability to meddle in European affairs. Trump's initiative, therefore, is poised to protect Europe and weaken Russia.

This is part of why Walter Russell Mead suggested in February that "Trump isn't sounding like a Russian mole." If Trump were under Putin's influence, he would surely be doing everything he could to limit American natural-gas production, reject proposed pipelines, curtail fracking, and impose harsh emissions reduction targets. But Trump has done the opposite. He has withdrawn from the Paris agreement, approved the Keystone pipeline and set about repealing roadblocks to fracking on federal lands. In June, for instance, the Bureau of Land Management announced it would auction off 195,732 acres of federal land in Nevada for fossil-fuel development.

Flooding the market, American fossil fuels are not only reducing Russian market share, but also bringing down the global prices of oil and gas, creating a new normal that spells trouble for the oil-dependent Russian economy. In other words, by promoting American energy development, Trump is putting the screws to Russia.

In fact, Trump is placing pressure on Russia all across the world. In Syria, where the Obama administration ceded a great deal of ground to the Russians, Trump has escalated, upsetting the Russians. Though the two nations have signed a partial ceasefire covering southwest Syria, many fear that Trump has been too strident in combatting Russian efforts to dominate Syria. The Trump administration has also taken on Iranian-backed rebels in Syria and decisively sided with the Sunni Arab states over Iran, a Russian ally.

Furthermore, Trump has modestly increased military spending and successfully pressured our NATO allies into increasing their military spending as well. NATO's "enhanced Forward Presence" program has sent more troops to the Baltic states, where the alliance has also held extensive war games. Finally, Trump has just appointed Kurt Volker, former ambassador to NATO, as special envoy for Ukraine. On Russia, Volker is as tough as it gets. All together, these measures constitute a serious effort to pressure — not appease — an aggressive Russia.

Of course, none of this means that Putin did not interfere in the election. It certainly doesn't help anyone escape accusations of collusion. However, as Damir Marusic writes, "At a minimum, it means that Putin's interference doesn't appear to have given him a docile American President."

On Friday, Rex Tillerson acknowledged that Trump and Putin seem to have good "chemistry."

This, I predict, will prove temporary. While Trump may try to leverage this personal relationship into Russian strategic compromises — he would not be the first or second president to try — American and Russian interests are simply not aligned. As Trump continues to favor oil and gas extraction, a central plank of his "America First" strategy, and continues to stand with our Middle Eastern and Eastern European allies, Putin will discover that a Republican president was not in the Russian interest after all.

Then the smiles will disappear.

Commentary by Elliot Kaufman, an editorial intern at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @ @esterlingk.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

©2017 National Review. Used with permission.