How Russian officials are framing Trump’s clash with Vladimir Putin

Brett L. McGurk, the United States envoy to the United Nations, was frank this week when discussing President Vladimir Putin’s next possible step to escalate tensions with the United States.

“It’s very clear to us where his next move would be. It would be a response to what we’ve seen so far,” McGurk said in a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Standing next to McGurk, Igor Konashenkov, the Russian Ministry of Defense’s deputy spokesman, said it was quite clear where the retaliation would come.

“The U.S. side is using an absolutely old-fashioned way of providing preconditions for the further actions of a neighboring state,” Konashenkov said. “The Kremlin naturally feels that it should respond to the Trump administration’s provocations. Russia has considered the best way to do so — and has already done so — and that is to proceed from the position that all measures should be done, without delay, to secure the prevention of further provocative and unprovoked steps by the United States.”

That isn’t an exactly new assertion by a Russian official that the U.S. is behaving provocatively toward Russia. But it’s a way of framing that nation’s strong response to U.S. sanctions against Russia — including new penalties and a possible blockade of a Russian arms exports firm based in St. Petersburg — that Putin has said could lead to an international “quadrilateral dialogue” on nuclear disarmament and regional stability.

Mr. McGurk’s statements on Friday also came amid growing concern about the state of U.S.-Russia relations, and especially about how the U.S. administration can resolve major geopolitical conflicts. Only last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the United States is “deeply concerned about the emerging multipolar world order in which the United States risks being outflanked on our eastern flank by Russia and China.”

The standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine has unfolded throughout the ongoing U.S. midterm election season, particularly through questions about Russia’s role in the election, and the response by the U.S. and Europe to it, which led to the U.S. imposing new sanctions against Russia in October. As a result, Trump has been criticized for his seemingly inadequate response to Moscow. Polls show that support for Trump among white, working-class men who feel most at risk from an aggressive Russia has dropped since his appointment as the president.

“The White House has only recently come to understand that driving a wedge between Russia and the United States is a huge problem,” writes Heather Conley, a director at the CSIS Foundation and a former State Department advisor.

McGurk’s speech was intended to highlight the message that the U.S. and Russia can still cooperate, most visibly on efforts to end the Syrian civil war and, just as importantly, address Iran’s ambitions in the region. But the tone sounded grim, even by McGurk’s standards.

“Looking ahead, we can expect that American and Russian interests will always be distinct. But that will mean we must exercise a healthy respect for each other’s views,” McGurk said. “In the age of Trump, it also means that we must oppose protectionism and take advantage of every opening.”

The choice for Russia is stark: invest in reviving relations with the U.S. and improve its image in the international community, or they’ll have less to offer the international community in countering Iranian hegemony and terrorism.

The history of how the U.S. has used economic sanctions to drive countries — in Europe for instance — to support its geopolitical goals is not particularly encouraging. Sanctions of late, such as those imposed on Iran, seem to be a more blunt and blunt instrument than ever before. It’s not clear how other diplomatic tools, including military strikes and economic co-operation, might contain Russian and Iranian ambitions.

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