Or is it Trump, who’s been jammed diplomatically by the sanctions bill Congress just passed and will be further jammed by these reports that DOD wants to get more aggressive in Ukraine?
American military officials and diplomats say the arms, which they characterized as defensive, are meant to deter aggressive actions by Moscow, which the U.S. and others say has provided tanks and other sophisticated armaments as well as military advisers to rebels fighting the Kiev government…
Under the Pentagon and State Department proposal, the U.S. would provide anti-tank weapons, most likely Javelin missiles, as well as possibly anti-aircraft weapons, in addition to other arms. Ukraine has long sought Javelins to counter Russian-made armored vehicles in rebel-held areas.
U.S. officials, however, said the plan would be to deploy the anti-tank missiles with Ukrainian troops stationed away from the front lines of the conflict —part of an effort by policy makers to limit the risks of escalation and defuse criticism that the moves could encourage offensive action by Kiev.
Mattis reportedly supports the plan but Trump hasn’t been briefed on it yet, according to the WSJ. It’s not often that the president learns of a Pentagon proposal to arm a foreign power in a hot war with Russia by having to read about it in the newspaper.
That’s what I mean about this leak being possibly aimed at Trump — now, with the plan public knowledge, he’s stuck. If he vetoes it he’ll be crosswise with his own generals in the name of better relations with Putin, a bad look for a president who’s already saddled with a special counsel investigating his connections to Russia. If he greenlights it, America’s crumbling relationship with Russia will get worse and Putin may escalate further in Ukraine, Syria, or elsewhere to test Trump. The Kremlin knows that he’s a very reluctant Russia hawk, essentially forced by Congress to sign the new sanctions bill in order to avoid an embarrassing legislative override if he vetoed it. If Putin crosses a line in eastern Europe, Trump will be trapped between answering him forcefully and losing any remaining opportunity for detente or backing down and losing face in a staredown between two strongmen. Trump hates looking weak but he also appears to hate the idea of frostier relations with Moscow. Putin can make him choose. And the Pentagon leakers are trying to influence that choice.
Americans like to pretend that Putin is a strategic genius, partly because he obviously outmaneuvered Obama in key ways and partly because it enhances his Bond-villain mystique. Increasingly, though, it looks like last year’s DNC/Podesta ops were a major miscalculation. He may have ended up with the NATO-skeptic candidate he preferred as president but he’s offended enough Americans that now it seems he’ll never be free of U.S. sanctions — even if Trump is willing to make a deal:
President Vladimir V. Putin bet that Donald J. Trump, who had spoken fondly of Russia and its authoritarian leader for years, would treat his nation as Mr. Putin has longed to have it treated by the West. That is, as the superpower it once was, or at least a major force to be reckoned with, from Syria to Europe, and boasting a military revived after two decades of neglect.
That bet has now backfired, spectacularly. If the sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress last week sent any message to Moscow, it was that Mr. Trump’s hands are now tied in dealing with Moscow, probably for years to come…
Mr. Putin has now concluded that his central objective — getting relief from the American and European sanctions that followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 — is years away. Once new sanctions are enshrined in law, like the ones Congress passed and Mr. Trump has reluctantly agreed to sign to avoid an override of his veto, they generally stay on the books for years.
If Putin would have stayed out of the campaign, Trump almost certainly would have won anyway and he’d have a more or less free hand right now to engage diplomatically with Moscow. Instead, any goodwill he’s built with conciliatory gestures like disarming anti-Assad rebels in Syria will be swallowed up by bitterness over new sanctions. Trump may have no choice but to reject the Pentagon plan to send weapons to Ukraine in order to keep the relationship from turning more hostile, even though the left will use that to accuse him of being a Putin enabler. Maybe he can use European opinion as cover. The EU is unhappy with those new U.S. sanctions on Russia, fearing that they might place Europe’s energy deals with Russia at risk, and France and Germany have been skeptical of arming Ukraine in the past for fear of escalating the war. Trump could tell Defense no and claim, ironically but not implausibly, that good relations with our European friends must take precedence here.
Exit question: Why can’t we arm Russia’s enemies in Ukraine if they’re arming our enemies in Afghanistan?