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Mark Dubowitz from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on US Policy Toward Russia

How will this controversy contribute to developing and implementing a successful Russia policy?

Image via Pavel Kazachkov/Wikimedia

In the six months since Inauguration Day, the daily news cycle spins anew with revelations about senior members of Trump’s inner circle and transition team in contact with individuals with high-level contacts in the Russian government and previously undisclosed contacts with Russian officials that may have had an interest in influencing the U.S. Presidential election.

Although evidence of collusion remains elusive, there is an ongoing and expansive FBI investigation led by Special Counsel for the Department of Justice Robert Mueller. Most recently, e-mails from Donald Trump, Jr. suggesting interest in a meeting that would reveal incriminating evidence about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner (Trump’s son-in-law) were also purportedly in attendance at this meeting, although both have denied receiving any incriminating information or engaging in any efforts to coordinate the release of damaging information about Clinton.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from investigations into the Russian intervention during the US presidential election in 2016, after revelations that he met the Russian ambassador for two private meetings prior to the election. This article discusses how this controversy contributes to developing and implementing a successful Russia policy.

In a recent interview with Julie Banderas for the Fox News Channel, Mark Dubowitz, executive director for the Foundation for Defensive Democracies, a non-profit, policy institute focusing on foreign policy and national security, discussed the following points regarding Sessions’ recusal and the related distractions stemming from the ongoing investigation of Russia’s meddling in the US Presidential election:

“I think it’s making it very difficult for the Trump administration, for the US political system, really, to focus on the bigger question here, which is the significant threat that Russia represents to US global interests. Having said that, I think the Trump administration has already announced, and is starting to move forward on a policy that must be making Vladimir Putin very concerned. Defense buildup, nuclear modernization, the unleashing of the US energy resources, and putting Iran on notice, Russia’s closest allies. So, they’re moving forward with broad strokes, but of course, they’re obviously going to be very distracted by these allegations.”

When asked about the impact of the ongoing investigation, Mark Dubowitz responded: “I’m very skeptical that in Washington’s very polarized political atmosphere right now, that anything’s going to be put to rest, or we’re going to move away from this story to the broader story. And I think the broader story is that every US President since the end of the Cold War has tried to diminish tension with Russia, has reached out to the Russians, has tried to have some kind of reset. Most of those have failed, especially when Vladimir Putin became the leader, and the Trump administration probably wanted to try the same thing. But the reality is, in terms of the broad strokes of their policy, as I mentioned, and I think Vladimir Putin would be very concerned right now that the US is going to be moving towards a much more robust posture.”

When asked about his thoughts regarding Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, Dubowitz said, “I think that Trump administration isn’t, and shouldn’t be naïve about Vladimir Putin, who has become the major power player in the Middle East, in the vacuum that President Obama left in the Middle East, as well as in Eastern Europe. And so, with the Iranians on the march, with a deeply flawed nuclear deal that’s going to give Iran a patient pathway to nuclear weapons, and with the Russians and the Iranians really the dominant player today in Syria, and increasingly the Iranians in Iraq, the Trump administration needs a very aggressive and robust posture vis-a-vis the Russians and the Iranians, and I think you saw signs of that. Unfortunately, I think these political events in Washington are a massive distraction. They need to be investigated, they need to be followed, but obviously, the enemy is not within. The enemy is abroad, and we need to focus on the real enemy.

In regards to tackling ISIS, Mark Dubowitz noted, “It wasn’t ever really clear to me that Russia was really a partner in the war against ISIS. The fact of the matter is, is that Russia and Iran today are fanning the flames of sectarian warfare, not only in the Middle East, but globally, and in fact, doing everything they can, I think, creating a situation where they’re the greatest recruitment gift for ISIS. So I wasn’t always a big fan of this relationship with Russia. The Trump administration, I think, wanted to explore, but it’s going to be much more difficult for them to do so now, given the events in Washington.”

With the media obsession about Russian interference in U.S. elections and vocal dissent from prominent Republicans and Democrats for any possible policy reset with Russia, it is unlikely a détente will be possible in the near-term. In fact, the United States House of Representatives and Senate reached a deal last Saturday to impose a new set of sanctions on Russia and give Congress new veto power to block any easing of those sanctions. The intent of these sanctions is to punish Russia for its interference in the U.S. elections and military aggression in Syria and Ukraine. Although there were certainly voices in the Administration that were hopeful for a changed relationship with Russia that could support U.S. policy goals vis a vis Syria, Iran, China and North Korea, these moderate voices are now stifled by the election scandal that has engulfed the first six months of the presidency and indications are Trump will have little choice but to go along with the new sanctions bill when it hits his desk, widening the political divide with Russian President Putin.

Author Bio: V. David Ben Melech is a former securities attorney and has over 15 years of experience providing a wide range of legal and strategic advisory services to Fortune 500 companies and financial institutions on a broad variety of regulatory, enforcement, compliance, risk management and transactional matters.

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