Is Trump Taking Orders From Moscow?

It's often taken as given that Trump is acting on Moscow's behalf in his foreign policy. In this episode we ask: what foreign policy would be in Russia's interest? And is Trump following that foreign policy, or a different one?

We explore such topics as Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East, with NATO, in Ukraine, and even in trade. We’ll see how he does.

Here’s the slide deck!

Extensive Notes


  • A lot of political coverage in last 3 years focused largely on Russia's role in 2016 elections

  • In the course of the Mueller investigation, a narrative has emerged, repeated across a number of news sources, that (simplified) goes something like this: Russia intervened in 2016 to help get Trump elected, and now Trump is beholden to Russia, and prone to compromise US foreign policy by going soft on Russia.

    • For sake of brevity, I'm going to call this the Trump-Mueller-Russia corruption narrative.

  • [Slide on narratives]

  • Enough time has passed now to review the claim that Trump's Russia FP has been compromised in a meaningful way. As always, the reality is more nuanced than most narratives. Rather than asking "Is he going soft" or "Is he hard" we actually need to think about what we mean by "soft" and "hard."

    • And I'll loop back to that idea at the end of the talk

  • These are the 5 big areas of US-Russian foreign policy over the last couple of years, let's look at each in turn


  • The US has imposed a number of sanctions on Russian companies & individuals since 2017.

    • Of course, so did the Obama administration. You can have a reasonable discussion about how extreme this administration's sanctions are relative to the last one's.

    • But here's one quote from the Carnegie institute, a solid think tank that generally does good work on a variety of issues [read]

  • But, rather getting into the details of all of these, will just provide a quick timeline on what these sanctions have been & under what authority

  • Will point out that CAATSA was passed by Congress. This include restrictions that require the president to gain congressional approval if he is to seek any waivers to sanctions under CAATSA. Many saw this as the legislative branch tying Trump's hands, but many other sanctions imposed under the Trump administration have not been under CAATSA authorities, meaning they are incremental to anything that would be required to CAATSA.

    • CAATSA still requires the exec to name the sanctioned parties (individuals + companies).

    • These, plus additional sanctions imposed by Trump administration in early April that weren't issued under CAATSA authority, were damaging enough to send the ruble down ~10% in a couple of days


  • Just quick background in case not familiar: since 2015, Russia has supported Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

  • 2 airstrikes in Syria,

    • April 7, 2017

    • April 14, 2018

  • Both of these were the only instances of the US direclty attacking Assad, a Russian client, during the Syria civil war. Obama had famously laid out his "red line" of chemical weapons use, but when some evidence of chemical weapons usage by Assad was presented, did follow through on the threat. This was before Russia had formally begun to back Assad.

    • Mattis 20% of Syria's airforce eliminated. 

  • That's one difference between Trump and Obama: willingness to strike Russia's allies directly with military force.

Nordstream II

  • What is it: large natural gas pipeline that would run through Baltic Sea connecting Russia to Germany. Follows route of existing gas pipeline, Nord Stream 1

    • Germany imports large amount of natural gas from Russia, ~55% of total consumption

    • Germany imports 95% of the natural gas it consumers. ~25% of Germany's energy comes from natural gas

  • Set to enter service this year (FT)

  • Point would be to increase supply capacity along a pipeline route that does not going through Ukraine

  • Why? B/c Russia wants to be able to cut gas flowing through Ukraine as a lever to pressure it (both in terms of lost transit revenue & just lack of access to energy) while continuing to supply gas to Europe. Also wants to increase western Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas, rather than letting it import more liquid natural gas from the US

  • Currently, there are no sanctions - Trump only considering it.  However, Trump has said he'd consider secondary sanctions for companies involved in the construction of Nordstream II, which has Germany worried because it would mean sanctions on German companies. 

  • That said - as of mid May two senators (one Dem, one Republican) are working on a draft bill that would impose sanctions for Nordstream II, and sec energy Perry said in late may that sanctions will be coming soon. 


  • Background: Any discussion on US-Russia needs to include NATO, b/c NATO was the security alliance created to contain the Soviet Unino after WWII

    • NATO has repeatedly that all of its member countries will spend the equivalent of 2% of their GDP on defense. Only 7 countries out of 29  meet that threshold: US, UK, Greece, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. However, Poland & the three Baltics just met this spending requirement in the last year.

  • The US , in other words, carries the majority of the burden in NATO

  • In 2017, US accounted for 51% of NATO's combined GDP and 72% of its combined expenditure, contributing more to NATO than Germany+France+Italy+Spain+UK+Canada combined.

  • Trump's been pretty aggressive about this point since taking office, certainly rhetorically.

  • Some people interpret this rhetoric as Trump's carelessness stemming from a willingness to leave NATO. But the US has actually been increasing its military commitments to NATO, certainly in countries that meet the spending target,

  • Deployments

    • Romania/Bulgaria - strategically significant countries vis-a-vis Russia (all on Black Sea)

      • Romania - Constanta military base. Investing more $, deployed more anti-air defense + area denial capabilities

      • Bulgaria - investing a similar amount into the airbase at Novo Solo

    • In fact, extended commitments to countries like Lithuania, in April 2019.

    • Poland - just two weeks ago, Trump reached an agreement to deploy 1,000 more forces to Poland. Interestingly,  these forces are supposed to come from Germany, which has failed to meet that commitment, whereas Poland just met it.

    • Since Poland is much closer to Russia than Germany, Russia's not particularly happy about this, sees it as a more forward deploying in the realm of ongoing NATO encirclement.

  • ALso increasing scale of military exercises held with NATO.

    • Just this month the US and NATO conducted exercises with 8,600 soldiers (increase from 5,000 last year) and 50 ships practicing mock assaults on the Baltic coast near Russia, presumably as practice to repel a Russian invasion of the Baltics.

      • Led by US Navy's 2nd fleet, which was reactivated in 2018 to oppose Russia's naval presence in the north Atlatnic

      • October 2018: NATO held largest military exercise since Cold War. Involved 31 countries, 50,000 soldiers, 250 aircraft, 65 ships, 10,000 tanks & other vehicles. 


  • Saving the best for the sense that, out of all of these, Ukraine is probably Russia's greatest concern

  • That's b/c the area that is Ukraine/Belarus is right on the historical invasion route to Russia, on a big flat open plain that makes it easy for large armies to invade. Also the frontier during many of Russia's wars with the Ottoman Empire

  • This is why, in 2014, after what appeared to Russia like 2 decades of NATO encirclement despite a pledge not to, Russia support an insurgency in Ukraine's east after it appeared that a revolution was set to install a pro-western government.

  • In response, the US, in 2015, began providing nonlethal aid to Ukraine

  • There was a debate about whether the US should provide lethal support in addition to nonlethal support. Those in favor if lethal support argued that Russia needed to face meaningful consequences for its annexaction of Crimea [Map of Crimea here good]. Those who opposed it said that, by arming ukraine and thereby increasing the chance of Russian service members getting killed with US weapons, threatened escalation with Russia.

    • In 2014 Congress passed the "Ukraine Freedom Support Act" (a very American name) which was set to appropriate $350mm in security assistance including anti-tank and anti-armor.

    • President Obama, however, decided not to authorize the sale of US arms or provide financing for weapons purchase to Ukraine. During the Obama administration, the US did not provide lethal aid to Ukraine

  • That has changed under the Trump administration. 

    • December 2017 - $41.5mm towards different sniper rifle systems, ammunition, affiliated parts

    • First major lethal aid from US was in early 2018, a $47mm sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles.

    • Feb 2019 - Trump administration notified Congress that funds provided by the DoD's Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative would go towards lethal aids. 

    • 2019 budget increases authorized funding by $50mm to $250mm and requires that at least $50mm of that total amount must be used for lethal aid

  • In other words, the US is providing weapons to a country that is killing either Russian servicemen or Russian proxies fighting in Russia's interest. It's not a full scale proxy war, but it wouldn't be exaggerating to call it a low-level proxy conflict between the US and Russia.