World Politics

Here’s where Trump has been tough on Russia — and where he’s backed down

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump sat down with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
  • A tendency to contradict himself and occasionally backtrack has led to confusion over the direction of Trump's foreign policy.
President Donald Trump (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting at the Presidential Palace, Helsinki, July 16, 2018. 
Mikhail Metzel | TASS | Getty Images

As President Donald Trump sat down with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, here’s a look at what happened when the leaders were previously face-to-face in November — and what’s changed since then.

The American president has certainly overseen blows to the Kremlin under his administration, but a tendency to contradict himself and occasionally backtrack has led to confusion over the direction of his foreign policy.

‘Toughest on Russia’

Trump has frequently described himself as heavy-handed on Russia, saying in April, "probably nobody's been tougher on Russia than Donald Trump,” and often arguing that the Russians didn’t want him to win the presidency for that reason.

Indeed, some of the toughest sanctions in years have fallen on Russia’s elite under the Trump administration. Sanctions imposed over Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 have not been lifted, Trump approved the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine — something Barack Obama did not do — and he has ordered missiles fired at Syrian military sites, openly targeting strategic operations and allies of Russia.

But critics would argue that’s not enough, pointing to his delays implementing congressional sanctions and frequent praise of Putin’s leadership, as well as the reluctance to act on Moscow’s cyber aggression. They’ve also cited U.S. intelligence conclusions that the Kremlin meddled in the U.S. election in favor of Trump.

President Donald Trump  and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, July 16, 2018.
Alexei Nikolsky | TASS | Getty Images

In August 2017, Trump signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, despite calling it “seriously flawed.” He then bypassed a congressionally mandated deadline in January to act on the bill and impose new sanctions on Russia for the election allegations.

Election meddling

Perhaps the most contentious issue for the relationship between Trump and Putin is the allegation of interference by the Kremlin in the 2016 presidential election — something the entire U.S. intelligence community has confirmed but Trump continues to dispute.

After Trump first spoke with Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam last November, he told reporters that he did raise the topic of election meddling, but that the Russian leader denied the allegations.

“He said he didn’t meddle. He said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One after the event.

“Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ Trump added. “And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”

Twelve Russian officers indicted for hacking the DNC
Twelve Russian officers indicted for hacking the DNC

The president has never fully endorsed the intelligence community’s assessment, framing the hacking allegations as inspired by the Democrats in response to Hillary Clinton’s election loss.

Asked by reporters on Friday whether he would again mention the issue in Helsinki, Trump replied he would “absolutely” bring it up. He added he did not expect an admission of guilt, however, emphasizing that his expectations for what could come out of the summit remained low.

Sanctions are ‘biting’

Sanctions were finally imposed on members of Russia’s elite and their business entities in April, after 13 Russians were indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for “malicious cyber-enabled activities” in March.

Also in March, following the poisoning of former KGB agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K., the Trump administration expelled 60 Russian diplomats from the U.S., although reports indicated he was not happy with the move.

In early July, Trump seemed to challenge the long-held U.S. policy of refusing to recognize Moscow’s Crimea annexation, saying only in response to questions on the issue: “We’ll see.” He also reportedly argued to officials at June’s G-7 summit that Crimea should belong to Russia because “everyone there speaks Russian.”

This would fly in the face of a recent official White House statement by press secretary Sarah Sanders, who said on July 2: "We do not recognize Russia's attempt to annex Crimea. We agree to disagree with Russia on that front. And our Crimea sanctions against Russia will remain in place until Russia returns the peninsula to the Ukraine."

Syria likely to be high on Trump and Putin's agenda: TS Lombard
Syria likely to be high on Trump and Putin's agenda: TS Lombard

During a U.K. press conference on Friday, replying to a question on the Crimea conflict, Trump seemed supportive of Washington's sanctions. “We'll see what happens... it’s probably a longer process than anybody would like,” he told reporters. “We haven’t taken off the sanctions, the sanctions are biting.”

Syria sanctions: A walk-back

In the wake of another chemical attack by the Assad regime on Syrian civilians, an enraged Trump took to Twitter to threaten the dictator — and his sponsor state, Russia.

“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’” he wrote on Twitter in April, lambasting the country for supporting Assad, whom he called a “gas killing animal.” Trump had fired 59 tomahawk missiles at Syrian airbases one year prior in response to a similar attack, attracting Russian condemnation.

Washington's UN ambassador Nikki Haley promptly promised further sanctions against Russia for its refusal to condemn the chemical attack — only to be left hanging when Trump walked back his threat and no new sanctions were imposed.

The 12 indictments

While U.S. diplomatic and security officials like U.S. ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman lay out laundry lists of issues for which Trump should hold Moscow to account, the president has named few of these topics as talking points going into the meeting.

A major flashpoint would be Friday’s indictment by the DOJ of 12 new Russian intelligence officials for hacking into the Democratic National Committee's servers in 2016.

Asked on Saturday if he would raise the bombshell news with Putin, Trump replied, “Well, I might. I hadn't thought of that, but certainly I'll be asking about it."