The situation shows how, in the face of two of the biggest political events that have rocked Russia in years, the Trump administration has returned to a familiar pattern: US diplomats are mounting a hawkish response, even as Trump articulates a more favorable to Moscow. The result is a paucity of presidential leadership and conflicting messages to allies and adversaries.
“This is the story of the Trump administration,” said Angela Stent, a Russian scholar at Georgetown University. “We have this forked policy of Russia, where the president clearly has his own agenda for improving relations with Moscow, but he hasn̵
Stent said the same response has been shown in recent weeks, as the administration reacted to the uprising in Belarus and the Navalny poisoning. “The president will not say if Navalny has been poisoned, and he will not say anything critical of Putin about Belarus,” Stent said. “Is he ready to criticize Germany or [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, who wants to import Russian gas, but not Putin “.
The administration has made the number 2 of the State Department official, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, the point of reference on Russia. In recent weeks, he has met officials in Moscow and Europe, as well as members of the Belarusian opposition, in a round of crisis diplomacy.
A former Ford Motor lobbyist and veteran Republican aide on Capitol Hill, Biegun has received praise from Democrats and Republicans for defending a hawkish stance towards the Kremlin in the role.
In a 9/11 call with reporters, Biegun criticized the Russian government for failing to launch a thorough investigation into what it said was the use of a banned nerve agent on its territory against a Russian citizen.
“It is incredible to us that this would happen on the territory of any country and the government would not react with the appropriate urgency to investigate and hold accountable those who committed the crime,” Biegun said.
The Russian government has rejected allegations of Kremlin involvement in the poisoning.
In Belarus, thousands of protesters took to the streets for the sixth consecutive week last weekend to protest an August 9 presidential election that they believed was rigged by President Alexander Lukashenko, the former head of the Soviet collective farm he ruled. the nation for 26 years. Protesters argue that Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed opposition figure, prevailed in the imperfect elections and is expected to become the nation’s next president.
In Europe, Biegun met with Tikhanovskaya, who fled to neighboring Lithuania in the aftermath of the elections under pressure from the Belarusian authorities. Biegun pledged to new sanctions against Belarusian officials in response to human rights violations against protesters, but said it is up to the Belarusian people to decide the nation’s leader.
“The Belarusian people have the right to free and fair elections in which they choose their leaders, and this opportunity was denied them on 9 August. There is no legitimacy delivered to the ruler of Belarus since the elections on August 9, “Biegun said in the call last week. He urged the Belarusian authorities to negotiate with the opposition and hold a new election under independent observation.
Behind the scenes, Biegun and other senior State Department officials pushed European allies to uniformly condemn the attack on the actions of Navalny and Lukashenko.
Earlier this month, NATO’s main decision-making body condemned Navalny’s poisoning in “the strongest possible terms” given the use of a “banned Novichok group nerve agent”.
Some nations of the 30-member alliance opposed the release of a statement and some sought softer language, including France, but the U.S. pushed members to approve the harsher wording, according to diplomats familiar with. internal resolutions.
US officials have also maintained a hard line with Moscow at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a multilateral organization of which Russia is a member, diplomats said.
“Biegun is a godsend,” said a European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic conversations. “Even if you normally hope to see a firm public stance from a US president, no one has the illusion that Trump is that messenger, so we’re happy with Biegun.”
But Biegun’s diplomacy was overshadowed by conflicting messages and Trump’s relative silence.
Trump said little about the protests in Belarus, pointing out that he “likes to see democracy” and that “there doesn’t seem to be too much democracy there”, and separately describing the situation as “terrible”.
Two days after Merkel presented what she called “unambiguous evidence” that Navalny was poisoned with a chemical similar to the Soviet-era nerve agent Novachok, possibly involving the Russian government, Trump said he didn’t know what. happened to the figure of the Russian opposition.
“I don’t know exactly what happened,” Trump said on September 4. “I think it’s … it’s tragic. It’s terrible. It shouldn’t happen. We don’t have any proof yet, but I’ll take a look.”
About 26 days after the poisoning, the United States has not yet released any formal appraisal from the government and Trump has not raised the matter with Putin, according to his call logs which are publicly available. On Tuesday, Navalny posted a photo of himself in a German hospital and said he was able to breathe on his own after weeks on a ventilator.
“Biegun made the stops I would have made. He saw the people I would see. He has achieved all the milestones, “said Daniel Fried, a former high-level US diplomat who is now a colleague on the Atlantic Council.” The question is, if you listen to him and you are a European diplomat. … This guy speaks for the administration or do you speak for that part of the administration that is different from Donald Trump? “
Critics say Trump offered confusing statements about US priorities after Navalny’s poisoning, indicating his reluctance to condemn the incident as chemical weapons poisoning that could involve the Russian state. Trump told reporters on September 4 in the White House that “right now we are negotiating a nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is very important.”
“It’s a very important thing,” Trump said of the talks. “For me it’s the most important thing.”
He asked reporters why they no longer asked questions about China.
Biegun later clarified that the United States can carry out nuclear negotiations with Russia aimed at extending and expanding the New START agreement and at the same time managing matters relating to Belarus and Navalny.
“No one in the United States connects our positions on the election theft and brutal violence in Belarus or the tragic poisoning of Alexei Navalny to anyone else – any other matter, New START or negotiations or whatever,” he said last week.
When asked about Navalny’s poisoning, Trump was quick to point out that he had good relations with Putin, even though his administration had taken tough measures against Russia.
Trump briefly used the question about Navalny to criticize Germany for moving ahead with Nord Stream 2, a pipeline intended to transport Russian gas to Europe that the Trump administration has opposed.
Andrew S. Weiss, vice president of studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Russian senior official in the Clinton administration, said an administration only has Russian policy to the extent that the president supports it.
“There is no Russian policy other than that which [Trump] he is willing to put his name on it, “Weiss said.” In theory, the United States should shape the West’s policy towards Russia. What we have seen, as we approach the elections, is that there is no effective US policy towards Russia, let alone the ability to rally others behind us. “
Anne Gearan contributed to this report.